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Missing Wasp Pilot Expedition Discovers More Wrecks, P-51 Still Elusive

Gertrude Tompkins
WASP Pilot Gertrude Tompkins-Silver disappeared in October 1944.

October 15, 2009 — An effort to find the 1944 wreck of Women Airforce Service Pilot (WASP) Gertrude Tompkins and her P-51D has led to discoveries of two more lost aircraft beneath the waters west of what is now Los Angeles International Airport. The Gertrude Tompkins Expedition has found what appears to be the wreckage of two aircraft in Santa Monica Bay west of LAX.

“During our week-long intensive effort, our divers and sonar experts have discovered parts of what appear to be two different aircraft,” said Lew Toulmin, spokesman for the Missing Aircraft Search Team (MAST), which is leading the expedition. “We are working hard to identify the wreckage. While neither of these two wrecks seem to be the Gertrude Tompkins P-51D Mustang that we were searching for, we are pleased that we have cleared 55 targets in the search.”

G. Pat Macha, an aviation researcher assisting MAST, said that the two aircraft were found in different areas. Initial examination of photos and video taken, as well as actual pieces brought to the surface, suggest that both aircraft date from the 1960s to the 1980s. One is likely a light aircraft, the other a rotorcraft that had both civilian and military uses. “That old ocean really chews up the aluminum,” Macha said. “In the one case two small parts were recovered with numbers. Those numbers in the one case indicate a certain family of aircraft, from one manufacturer.”

Macha says an item raised from the sea floor helped identify one of the wrecks as a light aircraft. “One of the items is solid brass; it was a fitting, a sump drain for a fuel tank - it has a specific number, but I don’t want to indicate until we know more.” Macha is searching through 1,000 pages of National Transportation Safety Board accident reports to confirm what they have found. “We have to match it with a historical loss in the area,” he said.

Tompkins’ aircraft was the last of a flight of three factory-new P-51D fighters to takeoff from Mines Field (now LAX) on October 26, 1944, on the first leg of a ferry flight bound for New Jersey.

Laura Whittall-Scherfee, grandniece of Gertrude Tompkins and the spokesperson for the family, summarized the feelings of the searchers. “We may not have found Gertrude now, but we are confident that some day we will find her, and bring her home.” While the search for the P-51 has so far been fruitless, with this week’s discovery the team has now found three missing aircraft. In April MAST discovered the 1950s wreck of a T-33 jet trainer. The search for the Tompkins P-51 will resume in the coming weeks once weather conditions improve.

Read about Gertrude Tompkins including an audio interview with G. Pat Macha

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