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57 he story begins in 1857, with the final voyage of the SS Central America. The 280-foot side-wheel steamer was carrying nearly 600 passengers when she sank in a hurricane about 160 miles off the Carolina coast. It was America’s worst peacetime sea disaster, with 425 lives lost. But what captured the public’s imagination was the gold. Up to 21 tons of it, mined in the waning days of the California Gold Rush. It had been shipped from San Francisco to the west coast of Panama, sent by rail to the east coast, and loaded onto the steamship bound for New York. The ship remained lost for well over a century, on the ocean floor about 7,000 feet below the surface. In the early 1980s, new technologies in sonar and undersea operations made recovery at least theoretically possible. Thompson, an engineer working at Battelle in Columbus, Ohio, had taken interest in deep-water shipwrecks as a hobby. He thought he could find the sunken ship. He put together a crew and raised the needed capital. The Columbus-America Discovery Group used computer models to predict where the Central America might be after decades of being subjected to undersea currents, and employed side-scan sonar technology to scan a 1,400-square-mile section of the ocean floor. In 1987, after the team had spent 100 days at sea, they found the SS Central America. While the adventurers were out on the ocean searching for the wreck, they were sup-plied by a seaplane based out of Air Wilmington, the private plane terminal located at Wilmington International Airport. At first, Air Wilmington president Bill Cherry didn’t know the seaplane belonged to a group hunting for lost treasure. “They were very tight-lipped about the things that were going on,” Cherry says. “We were just told it was ocean research.” The group also needed a berth for a supply boat, and Cherry pointed them to Seapath Yacht Club and George Bond at Wrightsville Beach. “The supply boat stayed there on the outer dock,” says Bond, the former general manager at Seapath. “The seaplane could land on water or land. They kept it out at the airport.” Air Wilmington and Seapath were convenient to the wreck site — “it was 167 miles from our ramp,” Cherry says — but the locations were chosen for other reasons. Because of the mandate for secrecy, the team split the operation up and down the coast. Charleston was home port for the Arctic Discoverer, a 180-foot, former Canadian fishing boat outfitted as a research vessel. The gold they would discover would be taken to Norfolk, Virginia. “They were trying to keep a very, very low profile, and Wilmington seemed like a good place,” Cherry says. Even if he didn’t know that Thompson and Co. were looking for the famous ship of gold, Cherry did get word of some of the cutting-edge technology being used. “That was the first time I had even seen or heard of Global Positioning System (GPS),” he says. “They were renting it from the federal government. They did some magnificent tracking to find out where the wreck was.” The aircraft used during the search phase was a single-engine Seabee floatplane. After a few months, the original pilot left and was replaced by Lance McAfee, who brought in a larger Piaggio P. 136 L1 Royal Gull seaplane. McAfee heard from a friend of a friend that the expedition needed a pilot. “My story is they were looking for the world’s greatest pilot. But she was out of town so they called me,” McAfee says. “Seaplane time is hard to come by. That was the opportunity that fascinated me.” His versatility helped land him the job. “Lance had a captain’s license and a pilot’s license. That’s why they hired him,” Bond says. Master of Coastal and Ocean Policy program equips you with the knowledge and skills to navigate the interface of science and policymaking affecting coastal and ocean resources. You can make a difference. Apply today. Learn more at uncw.edu/mcop UNCW is an EEO/AA institution. . www.wrightsvillebeachmagazine.com WBM


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