I am posting this from a cosy bed at Ocean Quest Adventures in Newfoundland. Well and truly knackered after a week of non-stop exploration, and we're only half way through!
The past couple days have been incredibly exciting! We have confirmed the discovery of a WWII B-24 Liberator bomber in Gander Lake, Newfoundland! I'm still glowing with emotion to be one of the first people to see and film this wreck in 79 years.
The dive was extremely challenging. The tannic water reduced visibility to just 3 feet - swallowing any bit of light that we could throw at it. It was like descending into oil and very disorientating, which made it extremely difficult to film in 120-160 feet (37-48m) of water.
I managed to do two dives and successfully capture the footage of the plane’s markings, proving this was the aircraft wreckage that took the lives of four souls, and has become a poignant marker in Newfoundland history.
Thanks to the decade of research by Tony Merkle, and getting the opportunity to be part of this team!
The team was supported by Ocean Quest Adventures, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society (RCGS), the Shipwreck Preservation Society of Newfoundland & Labrador,
Using state-of-the-art underwater imaging equipment, our team - part-way through The Great Island Expedition, completed a survey dive on September 5, 2022, in the cold, tannic waters of Gander Lake. The video and images confirmed an earlier 3D sonar scan from July 2022.
For more than nine years Canadian researcher and diver Tony Merkle has been trying to confirm the location of the ill-fated RCAF aircraft. He said, “It is a really special dive for me. I’ve never dived on a plane and since I discovered the site, it means a lot to me to share this part of Newfoundland history.”
Myself and my buddy Luc were the first two people down the line. As we descended every bit of light from the surface disappeared by 30ft. It was a very eerie feeling. As we reached the bottom of our drop line we had to search the area to locate the plane. Luc attached his reel then we swam circle line searches until we discovered the wreckage. We didn't have much time to explore at these depths because at this point we were were getting into deco. We surveyed for a brief 6 minutes and I shot 6K RED V-Raptor footage that would later on confirm the object was what we were looking for - the Liberator. The rest of the survey crew dived the following day looking for and documenting serial numbers and specifics to further cement confirmation. I also completed a second dive, shooting more video of this unique piece of history.
We found the aircraft oriented upside-down on a steep ledge nearly 50 meters below the surface. Previous search and salvage efforts conducted by military divers at the time of the 1943 crash were abandoned due to extremely dangerous conditions. The aircraft, dubbed “Liberator 589D” has remained undisturbed since.
Some images and video are being donated to the RCGS, and the Shipwreck Preservation Society of Newfoundland & Labrador for future educational outreach, and will also be a part of a personal project.
The effort to locate the bomber is part of a broader RCGS flagged project, “The Great Island Expedition,” taking the divers to various locations across Newfoundland. We have been documenting two US Navy World War Two shipwrecks, USS Truxton and USS Pollux in the Burin Peninsula and exploring underwater sites near Gros Morne National Park, and will be conducting dives to commemorate the 80th anniversary of German U-boat attacks at Bell Island in 1942.
On September 4, 1943, Wing Commander J.M. Young flew RCAF Liberator 589D with Squadron Leader John G. MacKenzie, Flying Officer V.E. Bill, and Leading Aircraftman G. Ward onboard. When an engine failed on takeoff, the aircraft made a slow turn and barrel rolled into Gander Lake taking the four airmen to their death.
At the time of the accident, military hard hat divers found the aircraft resting on a ledge in Gander Lake and attempted to attach cables to the fuselage. While recovering the body of Squadron Leader John G. MacKenzie, the aircraft slipped off the ledge and sunk to a depth beyond the divers’ range. Due to poor visibility, extreme depth and cold water, the military abandoned recovery and salvage efforts after twelve days.
FINDING THE PLANE
A former resident of Gander, Tony Merkle has been searching for the wreck for nearly a decade as a possible target for exploration. Merkle joined the board of the Shipwreck Preservation Society of Newfoundland & Labrador (SPSNL) to obtain assistance from a larger team to move the project ahead. With approximate latitude/longitude coordinates provided by Tony from the RCAF crash report, another SPSNL board member Kirk Regular carried out the multibeam sonar survey in July 2022 that provided initial 3D images and the exact location of the plane. Kirk carried out the survey while working for the School of Ocean Technology at the Marine Institute on a contract to map the bottom of part of Gander Lake. Kirk’s discovery of the plane wreck’s location made diving possible.
Neil Burgess (SPSNL) obtained the necessary archaeology permit from the Provincial Archaeology Office to dive on the plane wreck. The Great Island Expedition was invited to join SPSNL in the exploration dives made possible by support of Ocean Quest Adventures, the RCGS, and all of the Great Island Expedition participants.
DIVING FOR CONFIRMATION
On September 5, 2022, on the 79th anniversary of the crash, a team with the Royal Canadian Geographical Society completed six technical dives to photograph and survey the wreck site on a deep ledge between 37 and 48 meters. With water temperature of 5°C and visibility of less than one meter, the dark tea-color water presented challenging conditions. The aircraft is badly damaged and upside down on a precarious ledge. If the plane loses its perch, it may descend over 250 meters to the lake’s bottom.
Tony Merkle, Researcher/Technical Diver
Rick Stanley, Fellow RCGS, OceanQuest Adventures
Russell Clark, Fellow RCGS, Filmmaker and Editor of DIVER magazine
Jill Heinerth, Explorer in Residence RCGS
Debbie Stanley, Ocean Quest Adventures
Maxwel Hohn, Underwater Cinematographer
Luc Michel, Technical Diver
Tiare Boyes, Photographer
Krystal Janicki, Technical Diver
Neil Burgess, Newfoundland Shipwreck Preservation Society
Tom Howarth, Technical Diver
Chris Broadbent, Technical Diver
Agata Koniecek, Technical Diver
Greg Koniecek, Technical Diver
Robert McClellan, Media Support/Research