P-MAN XIII Update #07- Flip catches up and goes home
How the time flies. We're a week into the Palau adventure, I haven't written a word to you, and I'm already home. So I guess I better get busy. But first, Lessons Learned.
So I finished a trip for Delta Airlines (you remember, the only airline you're supposed to fly from here on out) on 29 January, changed out of uniform and immediately hopped a plane to Minneapolis. I had a safety meeting there on 30 January, the day before I was due to leave for Palau. Since the loads were very full out of Detroit to Tokyo, I planned on spending a night in Minneapolis and then flying to Tokyo from there. When I woke up the morning of the meeting, I bolted upright and had a bad epiphany: I did not have my passport. I don't know why I had that thought out of the blue, as I always have my passport in my roll aboard bag. And not having a passport is not a good thing when you're trying to leave the country. I searched everything I had in that hotel room and sure enough, no passport.
Long story short, I had broken a number of habit patterns since I had a loaner roll-aboard bag for my previous trip and somehow, rather than putting the passport into the pocket of something I was wearing, I put it back into the pocket of my uniform coat. Which was in Detroit. I was in Minneapolis. I think you see my problem. However, after many phone calls and coordinations, said passport was put into my hands without my having to go back to Detroit to get it. If this was the manner of how this P-MAN trip was going to go, then this was going to be a strange and exciting mission.
Left Minneapolis without any other issues, spent the night in Tokyo and arrived in Palau on my own airline on 31 January. You really should go to Palau now. It is so easy to fly Delta there.
Rick Smith arrived the day prior and had been diving. Dan O'Brien was scheduled in ahead of me on the 31st, but I beat him in. Once we collected him and his luggage, out to Kraemer's to have the traditional first Red Rooster and get caught up on island gossip with the owners, Rene and Jane. The last member of our small troupe, Paul Schwimmer, was scheduled to arrive the next night, 1 February.
The first of many unusual occurrences occurred. We got appointments with ALL the government officials we needed to see for this mission on our first day in-country. We saw the President who gave us permission to do what we do. We got the Governor of Koror's permit allowing us to work in his state. And we finalized our Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the national government and BentProp to continue searching for MIAs from World War Two. All before lunch. Something was definitely different.
The next surprise was that Gloria at PNCC, the communications company that provides Internet service, promised to have it installed in our hotel room by the end of the week. She made it happen on Wednesday. Things were rolling.
With all those logistics things taken care of, it was time to plot out our mission. This mini-mission is dedicated to side-scann sonor (SSS). By scanning all the harbor bottoms, we hope to get the data we need to determine whether or not to dive a spot and see if a piece of an airplane is there. The water is anywhere from 5 to 120 feet deep - and a few spots are deeper. But by intensively gathering the data, we can make a plan to see what's there. The beauty of SSS is that you don't have to dive willy nilly just searching. We would only dive a spot if the SSS saw something. There is a bit of art (black magic) to making the thing work, so just because the SSS doesn't see anything on one pass over the ocean doesn't necessarily mean there's nothing there. So multiple passes are generally best. As you can probably guess, this takes a lot of time to go back and forth across the waters, at 2-4 knots. Not very fast at that.
Out to dinner with two Air Force doctors who were doing a month rotation at the hospital in Palau. Dan had met them on his flight from Guam. And in another BentProp coincidence, Doc Kathy's husband is a Delta pilot and they live not to far from me. And Doc Todd likes to brew beer. Just like me. Are the planets aligning or what?
We woke up the next morning thinking we would break out the gear and get going. We needed to shake out the gear and our procedures and thought we would just chug around the inner harbor. In a repeat of 2009, we saw the USNS Safeguard in port. This is a Navy salvage ship that has a number of Navy divers on board. They were in port to help the Palauan government with some repair and salvage work on their marine systems. This is the organization that helped JPAC work the B-24 site and recover the crew from the '453. A couple of the divers had actually been here with JPAC, had talked up BentProp to the rest of the team, and a number of the divers decided to take some of their precious time off in port to work with us doing SSS work. It's an honor and a privilege to work with these guys!
So that afternoon, we were out getting our gear spun up to do some work, along with our 'new' volunteers. At the end of the day, we did an extensive debrief with the Navy in order to set the game plan for the next day, and to improve our process and procedures.
On the 3rd, we went out to scan as much as we could. Essentially, we want to do full bottom scans of all the areas where an airplane was reported shot down, or likely to have been shot down. This amounts to lots of square miles of ocean. And since Palau is near the equator, we decided to start at the crack of dawn so we could enjoy some of the cool of the morning. The team met up with our Navy volunteers at 0630 and started to "beam until we screamed."
The SSS team found a couple of ships that might be unknown to Palau. Eventually, we'll take a peek at them and if they'd make good dive sites, Palau will be better off. However, we did not find any signs saying "Airplane right here!"
Split duties today. Dan and Paul continued with SSS work while Rick and I went out with Niall to research something he found in the water a few years ago. Niall is an Irishman and an oil and gas engineer who lives part of the time in Palau when he's off duty, and part of the year in Qatar when he's on duty. Last year Henni Rall took us out to look for what we called Niall's wing. Niall reported finding a wing in the water somewhere on the east side. And he described it as very big, and in three very big sections. We tried to find it without Niall, but were told later that we we were taken to the wrong spot. This year, Niall was on island and was willing to show us. We love it when someone is willing to take us to what they saw as that increases the odds that we'll actually find it again. If they say, "go here, then turn left and it is 100 yards on the right. But I'm too busy to go with you." then the odds are pretty small of finding anything.
We made two dives trying to locate the wreckage. And as time went on, and Niall investigated the coral formations, he became less convinced that what he found was a wing. The flat coral formations of the area moved and looked just like the wing he remembers. So now he feels that what he thought was a wing, was really just large coral formations. Too bad. But it was a nice day for diving.
Rick has a plan for a deep dive on the USS Perry. It's a mine sweeper that was sunk off the southern tip of Peleliu. He's training me to go with him. The first step was to start getting used to all the extra gear that I will have to carry. So he rigged me up with an extra tank and regulator hung off my BC and I swam around with that and practiced switching from my main tank to this stage tank. The next step is to use twin tanks on my back, and two stage tanks slung on the sides...
Split duties again. This time, Rick stayed behind to review SSS data while Dan, Paul and I went "beaming." One of the issues with SSS is that if no one looks at the data, what's the point of scanning the ocean bottom to begin with? It sounds good to say we'll review the stuff when we get home where we're comfortable. But that never happens. It's always a tomorrow thing. So reviewing the data promptly after a day on the water is going to become our SOP. However, no matter how much we get done, Paul said we'll review the data back at his house in Ann Arbor. On the 62 inch plasma screen, spilt screen, with good food and drink to motivate us.
Up early and down to the dock at 0630. We got on the boat and headed out. Spent the morning scanning the bottom and stopped for lunch at Neco Marine. We met up with Jolie Liston, who wanted to join us and see what we do with the SSS gear. In a curious revelation, Jolie said that in 15 years living in Palau, she never got scuba qualified. I guess that's like living in Colroado and not learning to ski.
After lunch, Paul and Rick went back to the hotel to review yesterday's SSS work while Dan and I went out to get more bottom data.
We got rewarded for our good work on the water by doing some snorkeling and manta-boarding at the end of the day. Since this was my last night in town, I got to pick the restaurant for dinner. We went to The Taj, where we were joined by Navy diver Andy, Doc Todd, and Doc Kathy. Robert the owner ordered for us and as usual he made great suggestions.
Back to the hotel so I could pack up and get a little sleep. The flight is at 0425, but the hotel thinks I should take the 0100 shuttle to the airport. This isn't New York City and LaGuardia so next time I'll know to leave the hotel at 0200 or so. I put all my jungle gear and water gear into boxes that will be stored with Jolie until I return in March.
I'm home! I flew out of Palau on my own airline. The new ticket counters in Palau are fantastic. The station personnel are wonderful and everyone at the airport wants to know when Delta will add more destinations. I did run into my security friend who made me get the proper sized plastic bag last year for my liquids. I thought for sure she was going to strip search me. But all was well. Up to Tokyo, sat around 5 hours trying to decide whether to fly home via Minneapolis or direct to Detroit. The Detroit flight was 24 folks oversold. Although I was first on the employee standby list, if there aren't any seats, there aren't any seats. However, at the last minute, they called my name and here I am.
And for the first time in my 10 years going to Palau, I lost weight. The best I ever did before was gain a pound. This year, through the use of positive motivational tools, and threats from Rebecca, I actually lost a pound. My goal at the beginning of the year was to lose 10 pounds before Palau. I was a few short. But when I tipped the scale on the morning of the 8th, I was one pound less than when I last saw the scale. It is possible. My secret. Only one Bem Ermii burger and shake. No bun and no fries.
The rest of the team (Rick, Dan and Paul) are still in Palau, beaming the ocean bottom. Hopefully they'll complete the scans early so that they can dive on some of the targets. Then in March, the main mission begins for a month. Our plan to solely do SSS work seems to be a success so far. We are much further ahead than we would have been if we tried to incorporate SSS work into the main mission.
Many small changes in Palau makes it interesting after the work day. Seeing old friends and making new ones is still great fun. And that brings you up to speed for my part of P-MAN XIIIa. The next time you hear from me, I'll be back in Palau for my part of the main mission. But don't wait on me.
- Flip Colmer