Daughter's undersea search for missing dad

TISIRI divers and Joe Kistel inspect the wreckage of a plane on the ocean floor.

Story highlights

  • Pilot Stewart Dunbar disappeared off Florida coast in 1996
  • Daughter had hoped wreckage would bring closure in father's disappearance
  • The recovered evidence suggests the sunken plane was not Dunbar's
Penny Malphrus got her long-awaited answer in the form of a one sentence text message: "We had a productive day and determined the engine contained a two bladed propeller."
It was not what Malphrus wanted to hear; nevertheless, she was prepared for it.
Malphrus had been hoping to learn if plane wreckage recently discovered eight floors below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, 20 miles off the coast of St. Augustine, Florida, was her father's twin engine Piper Aerostar which disappeared without a trace one February night 16 years ago.
Joe Kistel, a marine conservationist and the executive director of an artificial reef building company in Jacksonville, led a dive last weekend to search for clues.
"I personally felt bad that we were not able help her further in her journey for closure at this point," Kistel said later.
"I had prepared myself for the news that it may not be my Dad's plane," Malphrus admitted. "It is very comforting and refreshing to know there are people like Joe out there that have the kind of heart to want to help someone that may need answers. Joe Kistel and his team have brought me closer to finding this thing called closure."
Kistel found himself in the middle of this aviation puzzle purely by happenstance.
During a dive last month to map a site for artificial reefs, he discovered the plane wreckage: tires, turbine blade, a pair of engines and other parts. Malphrus heard about Kistel's find and drove from her home in Hilton Head, South Carolina to meet him and learn more.
Two diving teams comprised of eight people went down on Sunday morning. Kistel's goal was to lift one of the two engines buried 75% in the sandy sea floor. He and his group wanted to figure out how many blades were on the propeller. If there were three blades, there was still a chance it was the plane belonging to Malphrus' father.
The first diving team consisted of Kistel, photographer Larry Davis and lift bag operators Ed Kalakauskis and Nate Tucei. The second dive team included Jack Leone, Emily Leone and Dane Shields who went along to observe.
The conditions were favorable although the water a bit murky when the first team dove around 8:30am carrying two lift bags, one for each buried engine located about 40 feet apart.
Kistel said, "For safety reasons and to avoid the possibility of the engine drifting off and being lost, I connected a 50 foot tether line between the two engines."
It didn't take long for the inflatable lift bag to raise the approximate 400 pound engine from its resting spot.
"When the engine ripped out of the ground from the brute force created by the lift bag it shot up until the tether caught it," Kistel recounted.
Immediately, the search teams saw it was a two bladed prop with stamped numbers 15911 imprinted in the metal.
Using the information, Kistel contacted Hartzell Propeller Inc., an Ohio-based designer and manufacturer of propellers.
Kevin Ryan, a technical support employee at Hartzell, said, "It's not the first time" someone has contacted him to help solve an aviation mystery. Using the underwater pictures taken by Kistel's dive team, Ryan determined the propeller was likely made on January 3, 1968 and shipped to a Piper aircraft company in Pennsylvania.
"If 15911 is the correct factory number, the prop is an HC-E2YK-1RB/8465-7R.
It's an Aztec prop, and we sold it to Piper in Lock Haven, so it could be original equipment on the aircraft," Ryan said.
"We sent a truckload of propellers to Lock Haven where they bolted propellers to new planes," he said.
But that's about as far as he could go in determining who owned the plane.
"It's like Nike sending shoes to Joe's Shoe Store and then calling Nike and asking them who owns a certain pair of shoes," he explained.
With the information provided by Ryan, Kistel has also reached out to the Piper Aircraft company as well as the National Transportation Safety Board.
"Having a definitive answer as to what may have happened in February of 1996 would answer a lot of questions in my mind and others," Malphrus said. "Have I found peace? Yes," she emailed. "I even have asked myself what would closure be? Is that something that happens and then you let go of the past? I hope not. My Dad is a huge part of who I am."
And so Malphrus is left pondering the same questions. Whose plane did Kistel's team find and will the wreckage of her father's plane ever be found?