Underwater discovery unravels mystery

A Coast Guard plane was lost in 1967 answering a distress call.

By Terry Tomalin, Times Outdoors Editor
Published March 5, 2007

The captain of the charter boat stumbled across the wreckage by accident.

"He told us that he had found something," recalled Michael C. Barnette. "He didn't know what it was and he asked if we would take a look."

Barnette was heading back to port with some friends after a day of scuba diving off the Panhandle. The author of Shipwrecks of the Sunshine State spends most of his free time exploring the ocean's depths in search of lost chapters of Florida history.

"The water was 60 feet deep and the visibility was good," Barnette said, recalling that day in July 2006. "Right away we could tell that it was a plane and not a boat and that immediately got me thinking."

At first, Barnette thought it might be an old drug plane that had crashed unbeknownst to authorities on some moonless night.

But a close examination of underwater photographs and a thorough search of government records and local newspaper articles revealed quite a different story, one of bravery and heroism nearly lost to the sea floor's shifting sands.

"I was shocked," Barnette said. "I couldn't believe that after all these years the mystery had finally been solved."

To the rescue

Forty years ago today, a 40-foot fishing boat called the Flying Fish began taking on water about 30 miles east of Apalachicola. In 1967, the U.S. Coast Guard's air station was still located in St. Petersburg.

At the time, one of the primary "assets" at the Coast Guard's disposal was the Grumman Albatross, a 60-foot long airplane that could take off and land from land or sea.

When the Coast Guard received the Flying Fish's distress call, Lt. Clifford E. Hanna and a crew of five were dispatched to assist the foundering vessel. The wind was blowing 15 knots, the seas 2 to 3 feet, but the visibility was "zero in fog," according to a log of radio transmissions from that night.

Miraculously, around 9 p.m., Hanna was able to locate the sinking fishing boat and drop a dewatering pump to the beleaguered vessel.

The March 7, 1967, St. Petersburg Times had an account of what happened next:

The captain of the fishing boat, C.L. Lundy of Biloxi, Miss., heard a "loud crash" and saw a "flash" through the dense fog, shortly after the pump was dropped. Lundy could see nothing further, because of the fog. But the base had lost contact with the aircraft, and launched the search.

In the days that followed, Coast Guard ships from as far away as Key West helped search for the six missing men.

"They went all out," said Barnette, who has spent hours looking through records to piece together this story. "They even had the U.S. Navy involved."

The fog soon lifted and the searchers found the bodies of three of their missing comrades: the pilot Hanna, age 30, the co-pilot Lt. Charles F. Shaw, 22, and the night mechanic, Petty Officer Ralph T. Studstill, 38.

Hanna and Studstill were wearing inflated life jackets when found, according to a Times report. A pen flare gun on Hanna's jacket had been fired.

"It appears they were able to make some use of their emergency equipment," Capt. Curtis Kelly, the commander of base St. Petersburg told the Times.

Coast Guard officials eventually called off the search without finding the bodies of the other men aboard the plane, Eckley M. Powlus, Arthur L. Wilson and James Thompson of St. Petersburg.

For 40 years, the location of the plane remained a mystery until Barnette and his friends came across the wreck last summer.

"I knew we had found something special," Barnette said. "Once I started looking through the records, I realized that it had to be the missing Albatross. There were no other airplanes of that type reported down in that area."

Barnette passed his findings on to Coast Guard officials who have yet to issue an official response.

"We were very careful not to disturb the site in any way," he said. "We treated it with respect, realizing that it could be the final resting place for the three brave men."

It is unclear whether any of the six men still have family in the area; if so, Barnette would like to talk to them.

"We would really like to place a wreath or plaque on the site to commemorate the loss," Barnette said. "Something should be done."

For more information on Barnette's book, go to http://uwex.us/shipwreckbook.htm. Terry Tomalin can be reached at 727 893-8808 or tomalin@sptimes.com.