Richard Martin Theiler Paul Dale Smith
Pilot Richard Martin Theiler (left) and Co-Pilot Paul Dale Smith departed Los Angeles International Airport at 0215 PST aboard T-33A, 51-9227 bound for Yuma on 15 October 1955. This was an IFR departure, with instructions to report 2000 feet on top of overcast. The Los Angeles weather at the time was 1200 feet overcast, 4 miles visibility, in haze and smoke. After they were given clearance for takeoff they were never seen nor heard from again.

Missing Air Force Jet
Reported Found off Los Angeles by
Searchers for WASP Gertrude Tompkins

The wreckage of what appears to be a missing USAF Lockheed T-33A jet trainer has been found in the ocean off Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), according to a search team that was looking for the plane of a missing World War II aviatrix.  This past April, members of the UB88.ORG team, working in cooperation with and the Missing Aircraft Search Team (MAST) located the Air Force wreck during a sonar search for another aircraft.  The target plane was a P-51D Mustang presumed lost at sea in 1944 and piloted by Gertrude Tompkins, the last missing member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP).

According to Gary Fabian of
UB88.ORG, “We are able to release this information because we have just determined to a reasonable degree of certainty the identification of the T-33A plane, using part numbers and other strong evidence.  We are pleased that we have possibly resolved one missing aircraft case, and think that this lends credibility to our methodology in searching for WASP Gertrude Tompkins and her Mustang.”  Stated MAST spokesman Lew Toulmin, “Our combined search operation for Gertrude Tompkins’ plane is now ramping up.  We are very hopeful that our team of sonar and dive experts will be able to resolve the 65-year-old Tompkins case, one of the great remaining mysteries of World War II.”

According to spokesman Pat Macha, “In the months following the discovery, a series of dives were conducted at the site in order to gather photographic evidence to help aid in the identification of the plane.  A diver observed a stamped part number on a single piece of wreckage that was just confirmed by Lockheed-Martin as having been used on a T-33.”  The remains of an Allison J-33 turbo jet engine, also observed at the site, is consistent with the missing trainer, according to Macha.

Subsequent investigation revealed reports of a U.S. Air Force T-33A lost from Los Angeles International Airport on October 15, 1955 with two crewmen aboard.  The aircraft was presumed lost at sea shortly after takeoff.  This is the only reported loss of a T-33 in the area, according to Macha and Fabian.  Macha stated that, “It is significant that the wreck is missing its nose wheel. This is consistent with the T-33 accident report, which described the nose wheel as having washed up on shore a few days later.”

Kendall Raine, an investment banker and technical diver who worked on the UB 88 submarine case and who dove on the T-33 noted that, “At first we thought this was a piston-engined plane from before World War II.  There was very little of the aluminum fuselage left – perhaps chemicals in the bay dumped in the 1940s and 1950s, before there was an EPA, corroded it away.  But research on the tire size, a part from the feed mechanism for the .50 caliber machine gun, and the nozzle from the Allison turbofan engine helped us focus on the T-33.”

The first diver on the T-33 site was Captain Kyaa Day Heller, who was aboard Sundiver II the day the site was found.  She states, “Captain Ray Arntz and I were hopping targets, looking for Gertrude Tompkins’ plane, and I happened to get the third target.  I slid down the line, and the visibility conditions were great.  At the bottom I saw some parts and the prominent engine.  I realized immediately it was an aircraft wreck and a gravesite --  it had that kind of feel to it.  It was in deep water and very quiet.  It is a privilege to do this sort of thing.  I’ve been looking for Gertrude for almost two years now, and it would be great to find her plane and give her the recognition that she and the WASP pilots deserve.”  Heller is a divemaster and business manager with
Sundiver International and holds a 50 ton USCG Master boat captain’s license.

Macha noted that all information on the T-33A has been turned over to the military Joint Prisoner of War/Missing In Action Command (
JPAC) and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.  Further investigation may be conducted to search for possible human remains.  Notification of next of kin is now underway. 

* * *

Members of the Gertrude Tompkins Expedition will hold a press conference at the Western Museum of Flight in Torrance, CA at 3315 Airport Drive on Sunday, October 4, 2009 from 1 to 3 pm.  A flyable P-51 Mustang and a fixed T-33 will be available for inspection and photography.

A longer press release describing the Expedition and its members was released previously and is available on request.

Jet Wreckage Discovered 54 Years Later
Brings Back Memories for Savannah Man

SAVANNAH, Ga.—It’s like a story straight out of a movie, the discovery of a wrecked Air Force jet more than 50 years after it went missing.

But for one Savannah man, it’s very real. Thomas Theiler found out just a few days ago that divers had found the missing plane that had carried his brother on a training flight 54 years ago.

Theiler was 23 years-old when he found out the Air Force jet carrying his older brother Richard had disappeared on October 15, 1955.
More at WSAV News 3

Underwater video still frames by John Walker

Landing gear tire from Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star

Diver Kendall Raine examining T-33 wreckage

Close-up of damaged combustion chambers of Allison J-33 Engine

Allison J-33 Jet Engine

Exhaust nozzle

Impeller from Allison J-33 Jet Engine