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Naval aviator returns to underwater site of 1974 crash

By Jim Barnett, CNN
updated 9:57 AM EDT, Mon October 1, 2012
Bob Besal on the USS America in 1974 in the North Atlantic when he was a Lieutenant. Besal was piloting a Vought A-7C on a training mission when his aircraft collided with another plane at 15,000 feet, sending his jet into the Atlantic. He survived, but thought the plane lost. Bob Besal on the USS America in 1974 in the North Atlantic when he was a Lieutenant. Besal was piloting a Vought A-7C on a training mission when his aircraft collided with another plane at 15,000 feet, sending his jet into the Atlantic. He survived, but thought the plane lost.
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A man and his plane
A man and his plane
A man and his plane
A man and his plane
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Besal crashed plane into water nearly 38 years ago
  • He recently learned wreckage from the plane had been found
  • Besal joined divers on a journey to see the remains
  • Ruins are now part of an active reef

(CNN) -- Bob Besal went on a fishing trip this month off the coast of St. Augustine, Florida.

The 62-year-old retired rear admiral, who earned two Distinguished Flying Cross awards and spent a lifetime on the water and above it, didn't catch any fish, but he did return with some memorable souvenirs.

Twenty miles from shore and 80 feet under the Atlantic, parts of Besal's past were brought to the surface.

Nearly 38 years ago, the naval aviator made a critical decision that almost cost him his life and ultimately defined it.

A pilot visits underwater crash site

Besal and three other pilots were simulating bombing runs on a training mission when his Vought A-7 Corsair clipped the plane next to him. Besal ejected at a speed close to 350 mph.

"It's not one of those things you brag about, honestly," laughed Besal. "I didn't cover myself in glory on December 2, 1974. So it's one of those things if people asked I would tell them, but I didn't try to advertise it as such."

Pilot who survived midair collision decades ago learns wreckage found

The wreckage of Besal's plane was found last month by a team of divers from TISIRI (Think It Sink It Reef It), a Jacksonsville-based marine conservation company that specializes, among other things, in building artificial reefs. A data plate picked up off the ocean floor was traced back to Besal, who now teaches aviation maintenance technology in Charleston, South Carolina.

Joe Kistel, executive director of TISIRI, asked Besal if he would like to return to the wreckage site, an invitation Besal eagerly accepted.

Just after dawn on a recent Saturday morning, Besal joined a crew for a 90-minute ride to the wreckage site. Little did he know that the decades-old ruins had become part of a productive ecosystem.

"The fact we could determine it was his aircraft and locate Bob and actually bring him out here to visit the reef his wreckage had created, it's actually a very gratifying experience for us," said Kistel who had previously dived several times at the site now thriving with fish.

Sea bass, scorpion, trigger and octopus now call the broken metal structure home.

See the underwater wreckage

Kistel has no immediate plans to retrieve the larger plane parts. Said Kistel, "We've notified the military of where (the plane is located) ... Mother Nature is doing the rest."

Daughter searches for missing father

The trip brings back memories for Besal, who was just 24 at the time of the accident. His misjudgment during a roll left brought his plane too close to an aircraft piloted by his squadron's commanding officer. "It was the last thing he expected that morning, I'm sure, that I would bump into him up there."

That plane made it safely back to base. Besal never saw his own aircraft go into the water because he was above the clouds when he ejected, and shortly afterward he was picked up by a training helicopter in the area.

Besal, who went on to become commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS America, spent 30 years in the Navy. He used his flying miscalculation to develop a greater appreciation for errors made by others. He taught the next generation of cadets that mistakes are a part of life and what matters is what one does with second-chance opportunities.

Floating above the wreckage, he took advantage of his.

Diving conditions were good. White clouds, calm seas. On the first trip down to the bottom, divers retrieved a piece of armor plating. Besal studied it but wasn't exactly sure what part of the plane it came from.

"That's a substantial piece of evidence," he laughed. "Maybe Exhibit A in my case of my episode in bad airmanship."

Much of the debris, now a mix of tires, turbine blades and unrecognizable airplane features, is encrusted with marine life such as coral and sponges.

"You wished the day had turned out different, obviously, than it did, but it is what it is. I was blessed. I was fortunate that nobody else was hurt," Besal said. "I'm glad it happened out here if it had to happen, you know."

As the day ended and temperatures started cooling off, the blue skies now streaked with purple highlights, Besal, his wife Jennie, Kistel and a dozen other divers, friends and observers returned to shore.

Back on land, Besal was still beaming, "I'll treasure whatever Joe (Kistel) lets me have just as a keepsake of the event. It will certainly cause me to pause and remember that day and again to remember the incredible squadron mates I had and the people that entrusted me with that airplane. I may have broken that trust with the mishap, but they saw fit to trust me again, that's what I'll remember when I look at those (pieces).

CNN's John Couwels contributed to this report.

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