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Search for Last Missing Wasp Aircraft Resumes

Gertrude Tompkins
Gertrude Tompkins

Gertrude Tompkins

Landing gear
Landing gear tire from Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star. Photo by John Walker

October 1, 2009 — Divers, explorers, and aviation archaeologists from the Missing Aircraft Search Team (MAST) will launch a search in Santa Monica Bay off Los Angeles, California, next week (October 5) for the wreckage of an aircraft piloted by Gertrude “Tommy” Tompkins Silver, the last missing member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) of World War II.  Silver’s aircraft was the last of a flight of three, factory-new P-51D fighters to takeoff from Mines Field (now Los Angeles International Airport) on October 26, 1944 on the first leg of a ferry flight that was to eventually reach New Jersey.  It was a typical foggy day near the coast; however the two lead aircraft reached Palm Springs, California. Silver’s aircraft did not, and was not reported missing for three days due to a mix-up in paperwork.

G. Pat Macha of Los Angeles, who has written three books on airplane archaeology and has been researching the Tompkins case for more than 11 years, is hopeful about the search. “We have an eyewitness… 11 years-old, standing fishing on Manhattan Beach pier.  He remembers that late October day when he saw an airplane hit the water in the bay, through the haze and gloom,” Macha said.  “He told two other men and they said, ‘Aw shut up kid, they already know about it at the field.’”  

An underwater search effort in April turned up a missing United States Air Force Lockheed T-33A fighter jet that crashed in 1955. (See sidebar for the T-33 story) Gary Fabian of UB88.Org, which got its start looking for a World War I German submarine that sank off California, will lead the sonar effort to find Silver’s aircraft. “We have been searching on and off for Tompkins and her plane for years, but I think that our expanded [team] approach will sort through all the high probability targets.  So we are very hopeful,” Fabian said.

Thirty-eight WASP pilots died during the war effort.  According to expedition spokesperson Lew Toulmin, a co-founder of MAST and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, “The WASP were absolutely vital to the war effort.  They ferried all types of aircraft over 60 million miles from factories to shipping locations on the east and west coasts.  Gertrude “Tommy” Tompkins was one of these heroic WASP.”  Macha says Silver’s 100-year-old sister and family do not wish for the wreckage to be raised if found.

EAA Radio EAA Radio: Interview with researcher G. Pat Macha

Underwater Search for Wasp Aircraft Turns Up Missing 1950s USAF Jet Trainer

In spring of 2009, underwater searchers were looking for the 65-year-old wreckage of Gertrude Tompkins Silver’s P-51D in Santa Monica Bay when they found a different missing plane.  Self-described Aircraft Archeologist Pat Macha says 1st Lieutenant Rick Martin Theiler and 1st Lt. Paul Dale Smith were on a navigational training exercise when their Lockheed T-33A T-Bird jet trainer crashed in the bay.  Five days after the crash, a tire had floated to the surface that confirmed that the crash happened in the water, but it was not until this most recent discovery that the wreckage had been positively located.  The family of Lt. Theiler has been notified of the discovery; however Lt. Smith’s family has been hard to reach.  The search for Silver’s aircraft resumes on October 5.

EAA Radio EAA Radio: Pat Macha discusses T-33 discovery

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