Recovery efforts began March 1 when Grasp arrived in the vicinity of the crash site to locate the wreckage, and ended March 22 when the last recoverable debris from the second aircraft was lifted onto the ship’s weather deck. Salvage operations, which could normally have been conducted within a week, were delayed by severe weather conditions that twice sent the ship back to port.
The first aircraft was recovered March 12 from a depth of 177 feet and the second aircraft was recovered March 22 from a depth of 185 feet. More that half of each aircraft was salvaged including their engines, data collecting devices (flight recorders) and main computers. These items are vital to the Air Force’s investigation to determine the cause of the crash.
The salvage operations were conducted jointly by Grasp’s crew of 28 civil service mariners and 20 sailors from Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit Two, based at Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek, Va. MDSU Two is not permanently assigned to Grasp, which also carries a detachment of three sailors to perform communications functions.
Since the exact position of the wreckage was unknown, the ship’s civilian crew worked in cooperation with sailors of MDSU Two to locate the debris by combining the ship’s navigational information with data obtained from the dive unit’s locating equipment. Upon arrival at each site, Grasp’s civilian crew anchored the ship directly above the wreckage and the divers submerged to prepare the debris for recovery. Grasp’s 40-ton boom then lifted the wreckage out of the water using a cable that was attached by the divers.
Four Air Force personnel, including a civilian wreckage photographer, were aboard Grasp during the salvage operations to conduct the initial research and data analysis about the crash.
The mid-air collision claimed the life of one of the two pilots. The jets were assigned to the 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin Air Force Base.
Grasp is one of Military Sealift Command’s four 255-ft. salvage and recovery ships that are able to deploy rapidly to recover objects from the sea, tow stranded vessels and provide firefighting assistance.