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a behind the scenes look noaa ships survey, locate jfk jr. plane

Following Rear Adm. Evelyn Fields’ assumption of command ceremony in the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard July 27, Lt. Cdr. James S. Verlaque, NOAA, and Lt. Cdr. Gerd Glang, NOAA, members of the team that located the wreckage of John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s, downed Piper Saratoga, recalled the rush of events that came to dominate their lives and the consciousness of the nation just one week earlier.

—By Dane Konop

When he heard the news that John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s, Piper Saratoga was missing and feared down off Martha’s Vineyard on Saturday morning, July 17, Lt. Cdr. James S. Verlaque, commanding officer of the NOAA Ship Rude, was in port on Long Island.

map depicting search location for jfk plane

Because Rude’s specialty is precisely locating and charting objects on the sea floor that might be obstructions or hazards to navigation, Verlaque knew his ship could help. He immediately notified the Coast Guard that Rude was available for assistance.
Verlaque then began rounding up the members of his crew who had the weekend off.

“They were all out. Some were looking for fuel. Others were golfing. Some were hiking,” Verlaque said.

The 60-mile trip to the waters off Martha’s Vineyard took about five hours. They arrived at dusk.

The search for the missing Piper was underway, television stations preempted their regular broadcasts for coverage of the apparent crash, and the nation stood transfixed.

The Little Ship That Could

Exactly three years earlier, Rude had located the wreckage of TWA Flight 800 that crashed off Long Island. And now the ship was back in the national spotlight.

At 90 feet in length, Rude is one of the smallest vessels in the NOAA Fleet, highly maneuverable and the perfect size for operating in busy, near-shore waters.

picture of the rude

Although it’s one of the older vessels, Rude is equipped with both a modern multibeam sonar attached to one side of the ship, called SEABAT, and a side scan sonar, a three-foot-long “fish” that is towed behind the ship. In the hands of its highly skilled and experienced crew, the ship is a most powerful survey tool.

“We did a surface search first,” Verlaque said, “and about 45 minutes thereafter we started 24-hour sonar operations.”

Rude remained on station all night.

Ashore, authorities and the nation began to fear the worst, that there might be no survivors to find, only wreckage.

On Sunday afternoon, Robert Hancock, an inspector with the National Transportation Safety Board, came aboard Rude.

“Hancock provided insights into flight aerodynamics, the size of the Piper, what he suspected the Piper looked like and, based on the one radar position (they had at the time), how he suspected it was heading and its location,” Verlaque said.

But where to start surveying?

Verlaque and his executive officer, Lt. Eric Berkowitz, had already looked over the charts and determined a grid for “mowing the lawn,” running the ship on a precise, straight line course while surveying with sonar, then returning on a parallel course, close enough to the previous line so that the paths surveyed overlap and there is total coverage of the bottom.

“We were going with a guess,” Verlaque said. It was a great guess, but just off the mark. Ironically, Verlaque said, “had we started 250 meters further north, we would have located the wreck within an hour or two.”

For most of the day, they ran lines of hydrography off Martha’s Vineyard in a four- by six-mile grid, dodging lobster pot buoys as they steamed along at four to five knots: six miles east, then turn around and come back six miles west. On each pass, the ship scanned an area about 200 meters wide, roughly the area of two football fields.

It was not unusual for the crew to run 24-hour survey operations. “Everybody knew their post. Every- body knew what their operation was,” Verlaque said. And everybody gave a special effort.

“We were trying to find closure for the families. They were obviously grieving, and wanted a resolution. So everybody was geared up—myself and the crew—in a ‘find it, find it’ mode,” Verlaque said. “There was not much time to think about anything except locating the site.”

At this point, Verlaque and his XO were actually working 20 hours on, four hours off, and staying in touch with the rest of the search team by cell phone. The work continued all night.

Monday morning, the searchers switched to secure VHF hand-held radios because their cell phone calls were being intercepted. At mid-day, Rude dropped marker buoys on four sonar targets that looked promising. Shortly thereafter, Rude received new information from the NTSB—the locations of the Piper’s last four radar positions.

Rude returned to the area where it earlier had spotted suspicious targets, shifted from a rectangular grid to a two-mile-square grid and redoubled its earlier efforts.

In the meantime at 11 a.m., the NOAA Ship Whiting arrived on the scene, having steamed all night from Delaware Bay. Whiting’s commanding officer, Lt. Cdr. Gerd Glang, said he “drew a straight line from Delaware Bay up to Martha’s Vineyard,” making about 12 knots for most of the 24-hour trip.

The much larger, 163-foot Whiting is equipped with the latest, most sophisticated side scan sonar available, which had only recently been installed on the ship during its last inport at the Atlantic Marine Center in Norfolk, Va.

The new survey fish on Whiting, a Klein T5500, is the next generation of Rude’s side scan sonar, what Glang and his fellow hydrographers call a “high-speed, high-resolution side scan sonar.”

“The transducers are longer and they can actually form multiple beams, up to five beams,” Glang said. “And they’re narrower beams, so they’re more focused, so I get the higher resolution. But I also get the higher firing rate, so I can pull the fish through the water faster,” up to a maximum of about seven and a half knots, he said.

At about 1:30 in the afternoon, Glang called Verlaque aboard Rude. “Well, we’re on the search. We’re starting our box,” he said, having already gotten the coordinates to investigate from the Unified Command Center at Otis Air Force Base.

noaa ship whiting

began surveying in 80 to 100 feet of water, in near-zero visibility because of lingering fog.

At about 3:30 p.m., Rude’s crew, still towing the side scan sonar fish, located what they called a “highly suspect, level 10 target.” They tagged it “R-01” because it was the first target investigated. Level 10 is the highest confidence level.

“My XO was actually operating the sonar and I could tell he had seen something unusual,” Verlaque said. “He became tense, more than normally. I also looked at the sonar screen and it was apparent that we saw something that was different than the normal terrain there,” he said.

“There were literally thousands of rocks and boulders in the grid we surveyed,” Verlaque said. But what they saw on the screen was definitely not a boulder.

The ship radioed Romeo Zero One’s position to the USS Grasp, now on the scene with a remotely operated vehicle and divers.

Having given up surveying among the lobster pots, Whiting joined Rude in its search area.

“We came in right behind him and surveyed over the same area, where the contact that eventually proved to be the aircraft was located,” Glang said.

With Whiting’s newer generation tow fish, “we could see something that looked like it didn’t belong there. It wasn’t natural,” he said.

Near midnight Tuesday, the Navy confirmed to Verlaque that Romeo Zero One was indeed the site of the Piper wreckage. In fact, the chain anchor of Rude’s marker buoy had landed on the plane’s fuselage.

For the rest of the night, Rude resumed surveying in the vicinity of the Piper wreckage.

The next day, Wednesday, their survey work now complete, Rude and Whiting helped the Coast Guard maintain a security zone.

After a visit from Coast Guard Rear Admiral Richard Larrabee and NTSB Chairman James Hall, Rude and Whiting received their orders: “stand down from operations."

Rude, which was still operating non-stop, departed the scene near dusk, almost exactly 96 hours after it arrived.

“After we were released from the scene, we transited for Montauk and stopped at Block Island because the crew was fatigued,” Verlaque said with typical understatement.

Glang prepared Whiting and its crew to travel to Rear Admiral Evelyn Fields’ assumption of command ceremony in the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard.

Then, for the two ships it was back to mowing the lawn in Delaware Bay and Block Island Sound, and back out of the spotlight until the next time.

On July 30, the U.S. Coast Guard bestowed commendations on the officers and crews of Rude and Whiting and other uniformed and civilian members of the search and recovery team “for exceptionally meritorious service from 17 July 1999 to 23 July 1999 in the search and recovery of the downed aircraft carrying John F. Kennedy, Jr.; his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy; and her sister Lauren Bessette. Members of the Unified Command distinguished themselves during this complex operation with their professional expertise and poise.”

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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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