Research for the Fallen

Researchers find wreckage of U.S. aircraft off the island of Palau

Honoring the military code of “leave no man behind,” a team of physical oceanographers from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego, has deployed some of the world’s most advanced research instrumentation in service of a very personal mission in the South Pacific Ocean.

Researchers used sonar, infrared cameras, and multi-rotor aerial systems (similar to drones) to find downed World War II aircraft and the remains of troops listed as missing in action for nearly 70 years. The search was the subject of a film by alumni-founded camera company GoPro, whose cameras were already a common tool used by the researchers. The CBS News magazine “60 Minutes” also profiled the effort in a November episode.

Supported by a grant from the Office of Naval Research, Scripps oceanographer Eric Terrill and colleagues from the University of Delaware teamed up with the nonprofit BentProp Project in a public-private partnership to bring closure to families while providing a test bed for new underwater search technologies.

“It is rare in scientific research to be involved in activities that will have direct personal impacts,” says Terrill. “Our participation and successes in this effort have been humbling.”

Before crossing paths with BentProp, Terrill’s initial interests had more to do with understanding ocean circulation and sea-level rise — a matter of special interest to low-lying western Pacific island nations.

In spring 2014, the groups logged a major success during a month-long expedition off the island country of Palau, finding wreckage of two U.S. aircraft carrying airmen listed as missing in action since World War II.

“There was the pre-Scripps era and the post-Scripps era,” says BentProp founder Pat Scannon. “Our technology before Scripps was scuba gear and that has extreme limitations, especially because what we’re looking for lies below 100 feet. We could have gone by those planes two or three times without even seeing them.”