(WSVN) - Two deep sea divers found something off the coast of South Florida that is giving one family some closure. Karen Hensel shines 7 Spotlight on a story of service, survival and discovery that spans more than six decades.
On Jan. 31, 1957, First Lt. Richard McCombs was on a training mission when his plane’s engine failed.
The newspaper headline at the time: “Marine pilot safe in ocean ditching.”
Jimmy Gadomski, found plane: “He was able to put it down safely, but it was still a crash.”
The Marine managed to get out of his Douglas Skyraider, an attack bomber, just before it sank about a mile off of Key Biscayne.
Jimmy Gadomski: “We were able to learn that the pilot did survive.”
Florida divers Jimmy Gadomski and Mike Barnette were the ones who found his plane this past July, more than 66 years after the plane went down.
Mike Barnette: “We immediately knew this was something unique and that it had been undocumented.”
And they discovered it by accident, while testing a specialized underwater camera.
Jimmy Gadomski: “We’re looking at, and we’re like, ‘That’s an airplane, like, we’re looking at an airplane.'”
Then it was time for a closer look.
Jimmy Gadomski: “We jumped in the water right then and there, and then we went back again to document the rest of it.”
“The rest of it,” because the old plane was actually split in two, the cockpit and wings detached from the tail.
Jimmy Gadomski: “We could still see the guns on the wings of the plane.”
After the 1957 crash, the military removed the engine and dumped the fuselage in deeper water. It would remain hidden until Mike and Jimmy’s discovery.
Jimmy Gadomski: “I was able to do a photogrammetry model of it, which involves us taking a lot of pictures all around the aircraft, and it stitches together a 3D model of what we’re looking at.”
The technology reveals what the plane would look like back in one piece, but they wanted to learn more about its history.
Mike Barnette: “Trying to look for lost aircraft that were most likely, you know, operating out of the Miami area.”
Mike pieced together enough to learn the pilot’s name and then tracked down his family.
Mike Barnette: “I think we caught them by surprise.”
That’s an understatement.
Amy McCombs, pilot’s daughter: “I was in shock when Mike messaged me on Facebook and said that he had found my dad’s plane.”
Amy and her brother Mark spoke with us from Ohio.
Mark McCombs, pilot’s son: “We knew of the story, we kind of grew up with the story.”
They still have the life jacket and helmet their dad was wearing the day the 24-year-old crashed off our coast.
Richard died in 2022 at age 90, just a year before his plane was found.
Mark McCombs: “My dad was a very dedicated Marine, he was very proud of being Marine and took his aviation extremely seriously.”
Amy McCombs: “I just think the plane was found for our sense of peace. Two strangers that have really come into our lives and mean so much to us.”
Jimmy Gadomski: “We’re always looking for the next unidentified wreck or the next story to tell.”
One of those stories came last year when Jimmy and Mike’s discovery made international headlines: a large section of the space shuttle Challenger, which exploded shortly after liftoff in 1986.
As for the family of the pilot who crashed into the ocean here, they say they would one day like to meet the men who found a part of their dad’s military history.
Karen Hensel, 7News.
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