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arrow Stories and Tales of the Coast & Geodetic Survey
arrow Technology Tales


tragic sea searches


Two recent tragedies, the loss of TWA Flight 800 and the loss of the private aircraft piloted by John F. Kennedy, Jr., have high-lighted the role of NOAA's National Ocean Service Office of Coast Survey in locating objects on the seafloor. This skill has evolved as the result of 165 years of experience in nautical surveying beginning with charting surveys in 1834.

In the early 1900's the Coast and Geodetic Survey began experimenting with a method of discovering seafloor obstructions called wire drag. This system involved stringing a continuous wire between two vessels that would then steam slowly ahead while being carefully navigated by three-point horizontal sextant fixes. The wire would be held at a set depth by a system of weights and buoys. If an object was encountered or "hung" by the wire, it would become apparent by both vibrations in the wire and by a V-shaped pattern as seen in the surface buoys. The first of the articles below is a special report written in early 1933 by Captain Nicholas Heck of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey and recounts the use of wire drag to discover the remains of a private aircraft lost at sea. This was perhaps the first time that the remains of an aircraft that had sunk immediately after impact was found as the result of an intentional search. As such, Captain Heck's report is a landmark in the history of marine exploration and salvage.

The second article included in this section was written by Dane Konop, editor of the NOAA Report, and recounts the efforts of the NOAA Ships RUDE and WHITING to discover the remains of the aircraft piloted by John F. Kennedy, Jr. This article appeared in the August 1999 edition of the NOAA Report. Search for the remains of this aircraft centered in Martha's Vineyard, less than 100 miles south of the scene of the 1933 disaster. Two thirds of a century after the first tragedy, technology had changed significantly. The last of the venerable wire drag work had been done by the NOAA Ships RUDE and HECK in the early 1980's. Sidescan sonar systems that transmit sound through the water to reflect off of seafloor objects were then in widespread use and replaced the wiredrag method. The reflected sound is received by a sensing instrument and generates seafloor imagery that is analogous to aerial photography, although interpretation of the images requires human experience and skill. As opposed to visual three-point sextant fixes, the RUDE and WHITING were navigated using a Differential Global Positioning System that allowed them to operate in all levels of visibility with pin-point accuracy. These differences in technology were significant. Even if the Kennedy plane had been observed as it hit the water, it is improbable that it would have ever been found using the earlier technology because of a very rocky bottom and also because of the difficulty of using precise visual navigation far from shore. Although a different part of the effort, radar technology was a major factor in helping localize the search for the aircraft. In both cases, the end result was the same. The lost aircraft was discovered.

picture of nicholas heck
Special Report on the Location of Sunken Plane
Report written by Captain Nicholas Heck recounting the use of wire drag to discover downed plane in 1932.

picture of the noaa ship rude
A Behind the Scenes Look
NOAA Ships Survey, Locate JFK Jr. Plane

NOAA, members of the team that located the wreckage of John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s, downed Piper Saratoga, recall the rush of events that came to dominate their lives and the consciousness of the nation.

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Publication of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NOAA Central Library.

Last Updated: June 8, 2006 9:24 AM

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