By Ilima Loomis - The Maui News
A World War II-era wreck off South Maui first documented in January has been identified as an SBC-2 Helldiver, ditched in Maalaea Bay on a training flight by a Navy pilot in 1944.
Maritime archaeologist Hans Van Tilburg of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration dived to the site Saturday and confirmed that it was the plane identified by two groups of private divers separately investigating the wreck.
He said the U.S. Navy was in the process of making a plaque to mark the site, which is protected under state and federal law, and that officials may also consider installing a mooring nearby.
Van Tilburg said the aircraft was a rare find, not only because the wreck was almost completely preserved, but also because there are very few Helldivers left in existence.
"I'm definitely impressed," he said. "It's remarkably intact. I've seen a number of aircraft like this, and this one is very intact. That makes it very special."
When the wreck was first documented in January, it was initially believed to be an SBD Dauntless dive bomber. But B&B Scuba Maui owner Brad Varney, who first reported the site to government authorities after learning about it from a local fisherman, said he realized after visiting the wreck a second time that it was actually a Helldiver.
Today the plane rests on the sandy bottom of Maalaea Bay in about 50 feet of water, encrusted with coral and surrounded by schools of fish.
According to Navy crash records researched by private divers investigating the site, the plane was making a dive-bombing practice attack Aug. 31, 1944, when high-speed maneuvers damaged the tail fin and jammed the rudder controls.
With only limited ability to control the aircraft, pilot William E. Dill, a Navy lieutenant, made a water landing, surviving the crash without injuries.
Varney, a self-described "history nut," said it was exciting to pore over 60-year-old crash reports and other documents as he and colleagues pieced the story together.