Divers, explorers and aviation archaeologists from the Missing Aircraft Search Team (MAST) and from around the country have launched an expedition off Los Angeles to search for Gertrude Tompkins, the last missing member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) of World War II.
According to expedition spokesman Lew Toulmin, a co-founder of MAST and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, “The WASP were absolutely vital to the war effort. They ferried all types of aircraft over 60 million miles from factories to shipping locations on the east and west coasts. Gertrude “Tommy” Tompkins was one of these heroic WASP, and she disappeared in the Los Angeles, California area on 26 October 1944, in her powerful P-51-D Mustang. She is the last missing member of this famous and dedicated group, and her disappearance is one of the great remaining mysteries of World War II.”
Stated G. Pat Macha of Los Angeles, who has written three books on airplane archaeology, and has been researching the Tompkins case for over 11 years, “We hope we can solve this case soon, so that we can bring closure to the family, including Gertrude’s 100-year-old sister, who is very much rooting for us. We interviewed a possible eyewitness to the crash, who was only a boy at the time, and that has helped our analysis quite a bit. ”
Photo Credit: Laura Whittall-Scherfee
Robert E. Hyman, a member of MAST and one of the leaders of the expedition, noted that the WASP are still very much in the news. “On July 2, 2009, President Obama signed a bill awarding a Congressional Gold Medal to the 300 surviving WASP for their service. The President said, ‘The WASP answered their country’s call in a time of need, while blazing a trail for the brave women who have given and continue to give so much in service to this nation since.’” Hyman is an expert in expedition management, and led an expedition which found evidence of an ancient civilization in the remote Darien Gap of Panama, previously thought to be uninhabited.
According to Chris Killian, the leader of the expedition and a co-founder of the Missing Aircraft Search Team, “Gertrude Tompkins had only been married a month to Sergeant Henry Silver when she took off at about 4 pm on 26 October 1944 from Mines Field -- now Los Angeles International Airport – and headed for the East Coast in her Mustang. She took off into the wind, into an offshore fog bank, and was expected that night at Palm Springs. But she never arrived. Due to a paperwork foul-up, the search did not get under way for several days, and while the eventual search of land and sea was massive, it failed to find a trace of Silver or her plane.”
Gene Ralston, a well-known search expert who has found the bodies of over 60 drowning victims in the US and Canada, and who worked on the famous Laci Peterson and Natalee Holloway disappearances, is leading the sonar detection effort. He said, “Our role is to exactly locate each underwater site and do preliminary screening using side scan sonar and our remotely operated underwater vehicle, to see if we can rule out that particular target.” FBI Special Agent and diver Mike Pizzio, taking a vacation from his normal job as a member of the FBI’s Underwater Search and Evidence Response Team in Miami, is leading the dive team. He stated, “Some of the underwater targets are over 270 feet down. So we utilize special gear and have recruited some of the top divers in the country to work on this important case.”
Gary Fabian is an expert maritime historian who found the elusive World War I German submarine UB-88 off Long Beach, California. He stated, “We have been searching on and off for Tompkins and her plane for years, but I think that our expanded team has a comprehensive approach that will sort through all the high probability targets. So we are very hopeful.”
According to Colleen Keller, a pilot, co-founder of MAST and expert in search theory, who just returned from working on the June 2009 disappearance of Air France flight 447 off Brazil, “There are several possible causes for the Silver crash. The most likely cause is pilot disorientation in the fog. But other possibilities include distraction due to a faulty canopy, problems with the center of gravity in the Mustang, and problems with the engine. If we find the plane and are very lucky indeed, an investigation might be able to shed some light on the cause of the crash.”
Lew Toulmin stated that the effort will bring together a wide range of skills. “This effort is led by members of the private group MAST, which recently contributed to finding the missing Cessna N2700Q in Arizona, and was founded by private searchers who worked on the disappearance of adventurer Steve Fossett. The Tompkins team includes experts in search theory, expedition management, diving and historical research, and incorporates all the key investigators who have worked on the case over the years. We are very honored that relatives of Gertrude Tompkins are also participating in team logistics and field support.”
Toulmin continued, “Our all-volunteer team has undertaken hundreds of hours of research on the case, and we located three WASP who were apparently present at Mines Field the day Gertrude disappeared. These three P-51 WASP pilots had never before been interviewed about this case, while the initial 1944 accident report only interviewed one WASP. We have conducted numerous other interviews and analyzed various underwater databases to assist us. Our on-site team has a total of 35 members and we plan to deliver over 220 person-days of effort in the field. We are very excited about the Gertrude Tompkins Expedition, and have our fingers crossed that we can solve this great mystery.”
For more information:
For Gertrude Tompkins Expedition updates during the initial search dates of September 27—October 2, and the main search dates of October 3-11, 2009, go to G. Pat Macha’s site: www.aircraftwrecks.com.
For a copy of the Manual on Finding Lost Aircraft, or for information on the private searches for Steve Fossett and Cessna N2700Q, see www.themosttraveled.com/new/finding_lost.html