The Hunt for Clint Eastwood's AD-1 SkyraiderAugust 13 2017
On 30 September 1951 a Navy AD-1 Skyraider aircraft, having been lost in weather and out of fuel, ditched in the water off of Point Reyes, California. The pilot and passenger escaped the sinking airplane but nearly drowned in the rough shorebreak.
The passenger on that long-ago flight is still alive today. His name is Clint Eastwood.
We're going to find that plane.Read background
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According to the article in the Independent Journal, Private Eastwood wandered into the RCA radio station after coming ashore. This landmark is easy to find, as it's still around- they're referring to Radio Station KPH, which was located in a famous art-deco building from 1929 until its closure in the late 1990's. The building has been preserved and is part of the Point Reyes National Seashore. You can read about its history here and here.
The radio station KPH building is located about 3/4 of a mile south of Abbott's Lagoon, well back from the beach. As was indicated on Mike Warner's Flickr site, Eastwood probably came ashore at the beach immediately to the southwest of the lagoon.
So my "go-to" source for aviation archival work is Craig Fuller at AAir. I dropped him a line to see what information he had available about the ditching. A couple of days later I got a dropbox link with scans of some photos, Navy reports, and the same newspaper front page (The Independent Journal, San Rafael, CA, 1 Oct 1951) that was on Mike Warner's site that I linked below. I suspect that Craig was the original source of the archival information.
The accident report runs several pages, but the relevant stuff is on the second page, regarding the details of approaching the Pt Reyes coast and the subsequent ditching. The newspaper is even better, with details of where the pilot, Lt JG Francis Anderson, and the passenger, Army Private Clint Eastwood, came ashore. I'll have to round up some detailed maps of the Point Reyes area to see where Kohoe Ranch, Pierce Point, and the RCA Radio Station are (or were- these are details from 66 years ago!)
Quick searches of the internet don't reveal a lot of information about the ditching. There are a lot of articles where Mr. Eastwood recalls the incident to a reporter, such as here and here. These are interesting for context, but they don't provide much in the way of solid information upon which to base a search. The Wikipedia article for Clint Eastwood mentions the incident briefly, with three footnotes. But those footnotes lead to biographies, not to contemporaneous source documentation. The biographies might have footnotes that point to the original material, but it's going to take some legwork to track that down.
A careful look at the Wikipedia page shows that there's a separate article for his early life, and this article has much more detail on the ditching, including the date, with a new set of footnotes. Peering into the footnotes, we see that one of those is the Navy's accident report for the incident. Now here's some material we can use. There's a local newspaper account as well, from the day after the ditching. The copies on the website are a bit fuzzy but can be read in a pinch. I'll try to round up some better copies.
Now we've got a starting point for researching this thing.
After hanging up the phone with Russ, my thoughts immediately drifted to whether we at OpenROV could find the ditched aircraft. Step one, pull open the chart for the area. The NOAA charts for Point Reyes are 18643 and 18647. Looking at these, the bottom looks to be relatively flat and not too deep- three miles off of Point Reyes the depth is around 60m (200'). That's a depth we can get to with our sonar and our ROVs, and a smooth bottom will improve the visibility of targets in the sonar data.
This whole adventure started at the end of July. Here at OpenROV we were looking for some interesting sites on which to test our new Trident ROV. We've been doing a lot of work in Monterey Bay and San Francisco Bay, and it was time to step up the intensity of the testing. We started looking for interesting targets around the Farallon Islands, which are about 30 miles off of San Francisco Bay. One idea that came up was to survey the wreck of the USS Conestoga.
The story of USS Conestoga is an interesting one. In 1921 she left the San Francisco area for Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, but was never heard from again. The fate of the ship was unknown until very recently- her wreckage was picked up in a 2009 NOAA multibeam survey of the area around the Farallons, and then was identified with two ROV surveys in 2014 and 2015. In looking over the online documentation from the 2015 survey, I noticed that one of the participants was a friend of mine, filmmaker and aircraft historian Russ Matthews. I decided to call him to get some background information on the conditions surrounding the wreck of the Conestoga.
It turns out that there were a number of interesting targets seen in the multibeam data, and NOAA was trying to identify some of these. One of the targets they hoped to identify (but did not) was what might be the remains of a Navy Skyraider that had ditched off of Point Reyes in 1951. This naturally got my attention, as aviation history is an interest of mine. Russ mentioned that one of the crew members from the ditching is still alive, and that further got my attention- it's great to have the ability to connect the past to the present, through the eyes of the person who was actually right there. Then Russ mentioned that the crewmember's name was Clint Eastwood.
Archaeology isn't about rock piles and weathered timbers and twisted aluminum, its about the human stories that those objects tell. This particular story just got way more interesting.
On 30 September 1951, two Navy AD-1 Skyraiders left NAS Seattle in Washington for a routine flight to Mather Field in Sacramento, California. One of those aircraft had radio problems, got separated from the other in bad weather, and then got lost. While the pilot eventually managed to break into clear weather, he ran out of fuel while flying down the California coast north of San Francisco.
The pilot made a successful ditching, and he and the one army passenger got into life rafts and paddled to shore. Maneuvering through the rough shore break was not so routine, and the passenger nearly drowned in the process.
Most incidents of this type tend to get lost in the sands of time. The pilot of the unfortunate flight died a number of years later. The passenger however, is still alive. He left the army and has gone on to have a long career as a movie actor and director. That man's name is Clint Eastwood.