During World War II, a British warplane flying off the coast of Malta in the Mediterranean Sea had engine trouble and made an emergency ocean landing. Its pilot and co-pilot were rescued by two Englishmen on leave who happened to be sailing that day, but the plane sank.
Seventy-four years later, in June, Cal Poly students who are part of an underwater search and mapping project helped find the missing plane. Their 6-foot robot, an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), used sonar, photography and video technology in its search.
“We’re confident that we found a plane that was documented to have crashed three miles off the coast of Malta,” said Zoe Wood, a Cal Poly computer science professor who has been co-leading the expedition with Harvey Mudd College engineering professor Christopher Clark. “It matches up with the record of the same type of plane going down about three miles off the coast near the city of Sliema.”
They found the Fairey Swordfish at a depth of about 60 meters.
We’re confident that we found a plane that was documented to have crashed three miles off the coast of Malta.
Zoe Wood, Cal Poly computer science professor
The biplane torpedo bomber was used by England’s Royal Navy in World War II, as well as the 1930s. Nearly 2,400 Fairey Swordfish aircraft were built between 1936 and 1944 and sank more tonnage of enemy warcraft than any other Allied plane during World War II. Malta, a picturesque island located 50 miles south of Sicily, is a graveyard of ancient sunken vessels.
There are nine surviving Swordfish. Just a handful can be flown.
“We had a feeling of joy to have helped discover a site of a historically significant plane,” Wood said.
Divers with the University of Malta marine archeology department have examined the historic aircraft, which has decayed to a skeleton and is now part of an ecosystem for baby fish and crustaceans. Given that, the plane will be left where it is.
The Cal Poly team, working with Harvey Mudd College and the University of Malta, is part of a three-year program called ICEX (International Computer Engineering Experience) that develops search and mapping algorithms and conducts expeditions.
The sunken plane the group found is mostly intact, indicating a controlled landing, rather than a wild splash down caused by a freefall. Those are typically found scattered in several pieces on the ocean floor.
The team has led multiple surveys of sections of the sea looking for shipwrecks and plane crashes. The AUV captures scans and images used for data logging and 3-D modeling.
Using low-frequency sonar scans on June 19, the ICEX team’s surveys showed hints of the plane’s wings and tail but couldn’t verify the aircraft. The team returned on June 22 to gather high-frequency sonar scans and video footage of the wreckage. On June 29, Timmy Gambin, a collaborating archaeologist from the University of Malta, dove into the water to confirm that the object was a missing bomber.
The three Cal Poly students who participated in the mission were Amy Lewis, Roslyn Patrick-Sunnes and Sam Freed, all computer science majors. Three additional Harvey Mudd students also helped lead the discovery.
The three-year project is funded by a $250,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.