St Thomas Hulk HI-328
In Search of HI-328
L749A (VC-121A) HI-328 crashed into the ocean while on final approach to Harry Truman Airport, St. Thomas on October 26, 1981. The aircraft saw military service as a VIP transport with the USAF from 1949 to 1968 and was one of five VC-121As acquired by Mel Christler in 1970. Christler Flying Service operated the Connie as a large acreage sprayer until 1979 when it was sold to Argo SA. Mel Christlerís grandson Tim Crowley traveled to St. Thomas in March 2019 in an effort to find and photograph the wreck. While he was able to find pieces of the aircraft, he was unable to find the main wreck. The first photo shows the wreck in 1981, shortly after it crashed. Many thanks to Tim for sharing his story and photos.
I learned quite a bit from interviews with a guy that dove on it a few days after it sank (Scotty) and the St. Thomas dive operator (Jerry) that took me to it. The aircraft seems to have hit the water in a collision avoidance maneuver of some sort and floated for a few hours, sinking in Fortuna Bay which is northwest of the airport. I had heard it was being towed when it sank but Scotty said that was not the case. He indicated it came to rest in about 40 feet of water, which is consistent with what I found. He said they took fruit and vegetables off it for a few days and one of his fellow divers suffered skin rash, presumably from fuel that was escaping.
Scotty is a crusty old salt who has spent most of his life in that area. It seems he doesn't dive any longer but did refer me to Jerry. Jerry owns Admiralty Diving and had learned from Scotty about the wreck and its whereabouts. Jerry has briefly looked for the fuselage and other components but the parts we saw were all he has located. I believe the rest of the plane could be located with enough time. It is not in an area or condition that would interest most divers, so not much effort has been spent on it.
I booked Jerry and his dive boat for 1 day. The weather that day was poor and we struggled to get much time in the area. Jerry said he has searched to the southeast and found nothing. I did one dive due south and also found nothing. These parts were in about 35 feet of water, about 150 feet from shore. I suspect the remaining airframe is in many pieces, being slowly reclaimed by hurricanes and the sea. I asked about depth further south, thinking maybe these parts had been pushed uphill by storms. Jerry didn't think that would be the case. He indicated that finding even 100' water would be a mile or more away and he didn't think hurricanes would move parts like these much, due to their weight and ability to lie flat against the sand. I'm thinking the aircraft was probably cartwheeled into pieces during a hurricane with its parts scattered west? I have no doubt that with more time, we could locate more of the plane but would only find pieces. Clearly nothing that could be used on Columbine II, but we all expected that anyway. It was a good excuse to go diving though!
I'm curious if there is any more information about this accident. I could only find very basic information in the NTSB database. If Scotty is mistaken about the towing and depth of his fruit scavenging dives, itís possible the port side of the aircraft was destroyed in the accident and they could have towed the remaining fuselage to deeper water. Seems unlikely, but it is a theory. I can't imagine an airframe that lost a wing and tail section would float long. The only photo I've seen of it submerged was from the starboard side. (see above photos) The nose appears crumpled/destroyed and the props are curled under in the photo. If anyone has an interest in diving on this, please contact Jerry at Admiralty Diving (360) 338-8998.
I finally made it to St. Thomas in March and located part of HI-328. I was able to photograph what I believe is part of the left wing, detached wing tip, left section of the horizontal stabilizer, one engine and the detached front plate and propeller from that engine. None of the remaining airframe has been seen for years.
Photo Credits: Tim Crowley, Peter J. Marson
----Created 27 May 2019----