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Report on Location of Sunken Plane, Entrance to Lynn Harbor, Mass.

(Chief, Division of Terrestrial Magnetism and Seismology)

Date of Report: January 12, 1933

Plane located by means of Wire Drag.


January 12, 1933.

To: The Director,

U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey

From: Chief, Division of Terrestrial Magnetism and Seismology.

Subject: Special report on location of sunken plane.

I submit the following report on the location of airplane sunk off the entrance to Lynn Harbor, Massachusetts.

On December 29 about 4 p.m. a plane, according to reports, came down in a tailspin from a height of about 2,000 feet and struck the water at a point about 3/4 mile southwest of Bass Point, Nahant. The fall of the plane was seen by the dredge master of the dredging operations of the U.S. Engineers in improving Lynn Harbor, by persons in Nahant and at Revere Beach. The observation of the former, who was experienced in using ranges, proved the best although the others were not bad. The plane contained two persons -- Edward Mallinckrodt, 3d, of St. Louis and Donald Mackay Frost, Jr., of Boston. The father of the former is a man of considerable wealth, and made a very determined effort to recover the plane in the hopes of finding the body of his son. The parents of the other boy did not make such an effort, the given reason being that he belonged to an old New England seafaring family, several members of whom have lost their lives at sea, and therefore there was not the same sentiment for recovery of the body.

A search was immediately started using all kinds of methods primarily by the Coast Guard, whose proper duty it was to locate the lost plane, and a great many other craft using various devices induced by a reward offered by Mr. Mallinckrodt. The Coast Guard had at least four patrol boats on the job at all times. The weather was quite favorable and accordingly the search was vigorously prosecuted for a number of days, no attention being paid to working hours or holidays.

All sorts of devices were used including sweeping with heavy wire cables between two boats, sweeping devices with attached grapnels, nets, otter trawls, and various other devices. Mr. Mallinckrodt, knowing nothing of the sea, was responsive to every suggestion. He also had at hand during the entire time a large tow boat with a diver, and he used the lights recently developed by the General Electric Company at Lynn which made it possible for the diver to see rather well for a distance of 10 or 12 feet.

It will, therefore be seen that no effort was spared in the search, making use of all available knowledge.

On Tuesday, January 3, you discussed the matter with me, and it was agreed that the wire drag afforded the best opportunity of finding the plane. There being no appropriation available for this purpose it was understood that Mr. Mallinckrodt would pay the actual cost involved and no more. Accordingly arrangements were made with Boston whereby a truck was sent to Stamford, Conn., to obtain the necessary wire drag equipment. Lieut. J. C. Partington proceeded on Wednesday noon to Stamford and completed arrangements so that the truck left for Lynn on Thursday. With it went two former wire drag employees who were skilled in the work, especially in handling the tender, and Mr. Partington went to Boston. In the meantime I had gotten in touch with Lieut. Commander Adams [Kenneth T. Adams] with regard to arrangements for boats, additional instruments, etc.

I arrived at Boston at 7:20 a.m. on Friday and found that Mr. Adams had arranged for the use of two Coast Guard patrol boats, the 242 and 278. They were 75 footers, rather large for the work but having the very great advantage of an ample supply of men. The drag equipment was quickly placed aboard, and we started for the vicinity of the accident. After a brief consultation with Mr. Mallinckrodt on the tow boat Luna, at which time I particularly asked him to keep out of the way as we came along and also insisted on the suspension of all other activities in the region we were dragging, we started work.

It was the most difficult set out of drag which I have ever had. The wire drag parties no longer carry wooden reels with handles as was formerly the case and the permanent wire reels could not well be removed from the wire drag boats. Accordingly we had nothing but a spool of wire, a bitt for lowering, and a hand anchor windlass for raising the big weight. Through an unavoidable misunderstanding the two men from Stamford did not get in touch with Mr. Partington in time and we did not take them for that day. Accordingly, Mr. Partington and myself were the only members of the entire complement who had ever seen a wire drag in operation. This included Mr. Adams whose work however in taking angles and plotting was of very great importance.

It was necessary to set the drag at 23 feet. Since it was low tide and there was an 18 foot rock south of the place in which we were interested it was attempted to set out to the south and then go north. However owing to inexperience in handling the boats and other troubles we got the drag aground on the 18 foot rock at the start. Fortunately we were able to clear it without much difficulty so we then went to the eastward of the rock, took a long swing around to the westward of it and then proceeded to the place where the plane was supposed to be. A few soundings indicated that we were up against a problem of keeping the wire well off the bottom and yet catching the plane since the bottom in many places is flat and rocky with small projections going up from it. As we approached the place I was fearful that the drag depth was not sufficient, and went out in a small launch to change the depth of the drag. In attempting to lower a large weight the buoy got away form me and in trying to get my hand out of the way of the flying crank a finger of my right hand was rather badly dislocated. I went aboard the launch and rested until the first shock was over and in the meantime Mr. Mallinckrodt arranged with the General Electric Company for medical attention on my arrival at Lynn. In the meantime I had the boats continue dragging and in spite of the fact that the near weight was on bottom, and suddenly it was seen that the second buoy had caught. This indicated a genuine find. Everything was then left with the boats hanging on the drag. The tug boat maneuvered up the tide, anchored, and sent down a diver near the point where it was caught.

In the meantime I proceeded to Lynn and secured medical attention finding that there were no bones broken but that the finger was badly bruised and twisted. On return, about dark, I found that the wire definitely led to some object. It was then smooth and I proceeded to sound in the vicinity of the object, and I am now quite sure that I actually put a lead on the tail of the plane but it was hard to distinguish between the plane and the wire. In taking up the drag we found that the wire was partly foul of the tug boat's propeller, but thanks to the very excellent work of Boatswain G. B. Lok, who was in charge of all the sweeping operations of the Coast Guard and who throughout was of the very greatest assistance both in setting out and picking up the drag and in maneuvering the guide boat, we finally got everything straightened out about 9:00 p.m., and started for Boston leaving two sections of the wire and floats on the located object. It was fortunate that this work was done Friday as there was a gale the next day.

The patrol boats had remained at Lynn so that on Sunday Messrs. Adams, Partington and I went to Lynn, went out from there arriving at the scene about 10:00 a.m. We immediately set out to drag, to take a sweep on the north part of the suspected area and with the aid of the regular wire men had things going in excellent shape in a very short time. Mr. Mallinckrodt in the meantime had asked whether there was any opposition to having the diver down at the place where the drag had caught, and I told him to go ahead, [but to stop diving operations] only if became necessary to move out of the way of the drag. Just as the nearest boat came opposite the tow boat its tow line parted. I immediately went aboard the tow boat and asked Mr. Mallinckrodt whether he could suspend operations to give us a little chance to examine the area, but he said that he had just noted some fresh oil. The same thing had been noted on Friday afternoon, but it was difficult to be sure as the sewer outlet of the City of Lynn was only about a quarter of a mile away and the tide was coming from that direction. However, I decided to wait aboard the tow boat and five minutes later the diver came up with a piece of canvas from the plane and the search was ended. He stated that the wire was caught on the tail of the plane about 8 feet above the sea bottom.

Fortunately no newspaper men were aboard our boats that day on account of the circumstances that I have mentioned, though previously there had always been at least two who were anxious for a scoop. The divers were able to get the one body that they found out of the plane, get it on deck, make arrangements for the undertaker, and send the body to Lynn before newspaper men arrived. Temporary identification was made by means of the aviator's license which showed that it was Frost's and not Mallinckrodt's body which had been recovered. The drag was then taken in but for various reasons it required most of the rest of the day to get the plane to the surface so that it could be towed in and so that its wreckage could be thoroughly examined to see whether the other body was caught in it...."

The above account ended with other administrative details of Captain Heck's trip. A remarkable fact concerning these events was that Captain Heck located the plane on his first pass in spite of the inexperience of the boat crews and the improvised wire drag equipment. This is a tribute to Captain Heck's long years of experience in developing and operating the wire drag system. As noted in the heading of this report, Captain Heck was at the time of performing this search the Chief of the Division of Terrestrial Magnetism and Seismology. He made great contributions to American geophysics in this capacity and helped found the first Engineering Seismology Laboratory in the United States. He also was among the first, if not the first, to recognize the correlation between the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and earthquake activity, a major step on the road to the Theory of Plate Tectonics. He was later recognized for his pioneering work in geophysics by being awarded the prestigious Bowie Medal of the American Geophysical Union.

The following article first appeared in NOAA Report for August 1999.

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