Friday, July 04, 2014

Divers to search for plane wrecks in Gander Lake

There’s mystery under the surface of Gander Lake, and a group of divers are planning to feed their curiosity.

The Town of Gander has approved a request from a group of about 40 sport divers who will search for two airplanes that crashed in Gander Lake.

It’s an interesting history project, said Tony Merkle, who heads the effort.

“Basically, the project that I’ve started is to locate, identify, video and dive onto the B-24 Liberator that’s in Gander Lake,” said Merkle.

“Mainly, the two that I’m researching are the B-24 Liberator and a B-17 Flying Fortress. We have really good documentation on the

B-24. We have serial numbers, crew list, crash report, and that’s the one I’m initially going to go after to pinpoint it, dive on it, and see what’s left. There are still three bodies in that one.

“The B-17, we only have a serial number, a vague crash tape and just a reference area of five miles west of Gander. So, that one is going to be a bit more tricky to find.”

Merkle has the project approved through the Provincial Archeology Office and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Ottawa.

“Everything is in line there now,” he said. “The next step is for me to get out to Gander to do some surface sonar work to see if I can locate the wreck using just echo sounder. Once I have pinpointed that, the next phase will be to drop a remotely operated vehicle or remote video unit down to have a look at how deep it is. It’s supposed to be 150 feet down and on a really steep slope, so we’re not really sure how tricky it’s going to be to dive on it.”

Once the plane is located, divers will go deep under the surface to check on the condition of the downed aircraft, with the ultimate aim of bringing it to the surface to be donated to the North Atlantic Aviation Museum in Gander.

According to Merkle, diving attempts were made at the time of the B-24 crash in 1943, but equipment was not up to the standards it is today.

“They did a couple of dives on it back then after the crash, but it was the old-fashioned hardhat divers with big brass helmets and lead boots, so it was pretty crude diving. They never had any lights that could go past 60 feet, and now we’re high-tech with dry suits, nitrox air, and we have (high intensity discharge) lights, video cameras and the whole works. So, it’s no problem at all for us to dive 150 feet.”

The 1943 flight of the B-24 took off from Gander during the night, and one engine failed not long after the plane was up in the air, said Merkle.

“Because the crew had such little experience flying in the night, they performed the wrong manoeuvres to correct that problem. They actually made the problem worse, so the plane did three barrel rolls and crashed directly into the lake. One body was recovered, and he’s buried at the Commonwealth grave there in Gander, but the other three are still in it.”

According to Merkle, if the B-24 is accessible by divers and is in good condition, a military agency would most likely haul the aircraft out of the water to retrieve the bodies.

“There are military groups that go around the world retrieving old planes, but we are, basically, just a hobby outfit trying to preserve our history. The more I get into Gander Lake, the more I realize it has incredible history.”

His love of history and the preservation of the past is what led Merkle to tackle the diving project in the first place.

“I’m part of the Shipwreck Preservation Society of Newfoundland and Labrador,” he said.

“I grew up in Gander, and I branched off into plane wrecks when researching shipwrecks, and that led me to Lisa Daly’s project where she surveyed the land wrecks that are all around Gander. I got to talking to her and she mentioned there might be a couple in the lake, but they weren’t equipped to do any surveys on the lake. That was right up my alley, so I started researching.”

He plans to begin sonar surface work in the coming weeks.

Original story:

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