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JW Fishers - News - September 4, 2005


Indiana diver Mike Carpenter, has spent thousands of hours researching, and done hundreds of dives, in his quest to find a military jet that was lost without a trace in 1956. It all began when Lt. Frederick Davis was assigned to fly Airman 2C Robert Watkins back to Massachusetts to be with his wife. She had been seriously injured in an automobile accident. At age 29 Lt. Davis was an experienced pilot assigned to the 487th Fighter Interceptor Squadron at Geiger Air Force Base in Spokane, Washington. At 10:13 am he took off in a T-33 trainer jet with orders to pick up Airman Watkins at Foss Field in Souix Falls, South Dakota. It would be his last mission.

On the first leg of the cross country flight, Davis had problems with the aircraft and made an unscheduled stop at Hill AFB in Ogden, Utah. He complained of communications problems, and mechanics replaced the jet’s radio. Davis continued on his journey and landed at Foss Field at 6:29pm. He was joined by what witnesses would later recall as a “very fatigued” Watkins. They departed Foss at 10:25pm. At their first check point in Mason City, Iowa, the pilot was three minutes late making radio contact. He never made contact with the next check point in Moline, Illinois. Did this mean his initial communication problem had returned, or did the pilot have other reasons for not reporting his location? Documents indicate Watkins may have become ill during the flight, possibly from hypoxia due to oxygen deficiency. The condition causes mental confusion, poor judgement, muscle incoordination, and can even result in death. Finally at 11:46pm Davis reported in over Goshen, Indiana. Military documents speculate that after reporting at Goshen the T-33 may have experienced a generator problem and lost communications completely. No one knows for sure what happened, but the men were never heard from again.

It was a cold December night as Clarence Mienart watched the television sign off with the playing of the national anthem. It was his cue to put on his boots, bundle up in his work coat, and head out to feed the chickens. As he walked through the yard he heard a jet overhead. Looking up, he caught site of the running lights, and watched in horror as flames erupted from the belly of the aircraft. Minutes later, fifteen miles away, Harry and Ester Stabler were lying in their bed when they heard what sounded like a low flying plane in trouble. Looking out a window Ester saw “a flaming streak” heading toward earth at an angle too steep to be a landing attempt. Some 20 people saw, or heard, something that winter night. Based on the volume and location of eyewitness accounts, investigators believe Lt. Davis may have been attempting to find a place to land the jet, circling Kosciusko County several times.

One final report provided search teams with evidence that the T-33 had crashed into, or very near, James Lake. Alan Ritter, the only year-round resident on the lake, was awakened around midnight by the sound of an aircraft in trouble, and what he described as “the sound of a crash into water”. He jumped from the bed, threw on his clothes, and ran to the lake. Peering into the darkness that shrouded the still water - he could see nothing. He returned to the house, waited for daybreak, then walked back to water’s edge. There was no debris, but he noticed what appeared to be an oil slick that glazed portions of the lake.

Growing up in rural Anderson Indiana, Mike Carpenter was 17 years old when the incident occurred. He didn’t think much about it at the time. In his early 20’s Mike got into diving and in 1964 trained as a recovery diver. A few years later he joined Anderson’s Fire and Emergency Services Department. In 36 years with the department he worked on more than 20 drowning incidents, personally locating seven of the victims, and “put the hook on” 27 vehicles underwater. He found safes, guns, and other weapons disposed of by criminals in the areas lakes and rivers, along with assorted stolen property. Many of these recoveries resulted in jail time for the offender. All this experience turned Mike into a highly proficient search and recovery diver.

In 1978 while on vacation with his wife, Mike read an article about “an 8,000 pound jet that seemingly vanished into thin air”. His curiosity was piqued and he began to research the incident. He talked to eye witnesses, read military reports of the incident, studied newspaper accounts of what happened, and even interviewed the families of Davis and Watkins. Mike gathered so much information that it made up 16 substantial volumes. One startling piece of information he uncovered was that a number of pilots had been killed flying the early T-33 jets due to slow throttle response. His research revealed that these jets took nearly 9 seconds to respond as the throttle was pushed forward. If the pilot forced the throttle too quickly, the jet would “flame out” and crash. On the Air Force’s flight mishap report of this incident, the words “flame out” were penned in the summary section.

Mike believes that he has determined the most probable area where the jet went down by piecing together the possible final direction of travel, the jet’s altitude, speed, and glide. As a result of his extensive research he is convinced the missing T-33 lies at the bottom of James Lake. However, he reasoned that the heavy craft had probably long ago disappeared into the muddy bottom. Realizing an underwater metal detector was the key piece of equipment needed to find the jet, Mike purchased a JW Fishers Pulse 10 boat-towed metal detector. The Pulse 10 has a torpedo-shaped towfish with a search coil mounted on top. The coil is the part of the instrument that does the metal detecting, the towfish is simply a platform to move it through the water. The output of the coil is sent through the tow cable to a topside control box. The operator is alerted to the presence of metal by the box sounding an audio alarm and displaying a readout on the meter. With practice Mike learned how to grid an area and conduct a thorough search with the detector. He came to realize that to get the maximum penetration into the lake bottom, he had to keep the coil as close as possible. This was a difficult job as heavy weed growth prevented towing the fish very close. What he needed was way to put the coil right on the bottom. After pondering the situation for some time, then calling Fishers factory to pick the brains of their engineers, Mike discovered the solution to his problem was a sled. He designed and built a sled that the coil could be attached to. The sled was weighted which allowed it to run right along the bottom, keeping the coil in almost direct contact with the lake floor.

Armed with his research, the Pulse 10 metal detector and his special sled, Mike went to work. He spent many hours scanning the lake bottom. He hasn’t found the jet yet, but his efforts haven’t been fruitless either. Mike says, “Years ago they used anything and everything for anchors, as long as it was heavy. I’ve found all kinds of stuff in that lake with the Pulse 10; every kind of anchor, outboard motors, aluminum lawn chairs, propellers, patio umbrellas, several small aluminum skiffs, and even old “Woodie” boats with inboard engines sunk in the sediment. If its made of metal, that detector will find it. One time I got this really strong reading on the meter. Diving down I thought this must be the T-33. Stuck in the muck was a large flat piece of metal. A cloud of silt engulfed me as I pulled it from the bottom. I couldn’t see a thing, but by the feel of it, I was sure it was a piece of aircraft. When I got it to the surface and cleaned the mud off, I was so disappointed to discover it was an aluminum keel from a sailboat!”

Mike recently retired and hopes he can now start devoting more time to the search. He’s also got an offer of some help. A couple of police search and recovery divers in the area have volunteered to join him. They too have become fascinated with the story of missing jet. One thing is for sure; Mike Carpenter is dedicated to the mission of finding the T-33 and putting an end this 50 year old unsolved mystery. Mike’s wife Marty sums up his commitment saying, “He is not the kind of man to walk away from a diving mission - regardless of the magnitude. You just have to know him.”After pondering the situation for some time, then calling Fishers factory to pick the brains of their engineers, Mike discovered the solution to his problem was a sled. He designed and built a sled that the coil could be attached to. The sled was weighted which allowed it to run right along the bottom, keeping the coil in almost direct contact with the lake floor.

E-mail for information on Ed Burtt’s other projects or to receive a copy of JW Fishers newsletter Search Team News with articles on underwater search operations from around the world.


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