Navy bomber to make final dive

The pared-down aircraft will join fish on the bottom of the gulf as part of Military Park, the second phase of the Veterans Reef project.

[Times photo: Jim Damaske]
P2V-3 BuNo 122944

A P2V Neptune, donated by the owners of the Florida Military Aviation Museum, will be sunk this weekend to become the first piece of a new artificial reef off Hurricane Pass.

By Jane Meinhardt

DUNEDIN -- Fish that rocket through the depths of the Gulf of Mexico off Dunedin might pause when they see this stranger in their domain.

If all goes as planned, kingfish, amberjack and other species will hang around the fuselage of a sleek World War II Navy bomber on the gulf bottom, a fitting final site for a long-range aircraft designed to hunt submarines.

Minus its wings, engines and part of its tail, the Lockheed P2V Neptune will be the first piece of a new artificial reef named Military Park about 12 miles west of Hurricane Pass.

"This reef has been three years in the making," said Jim Pochurek, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and chairman of Hurricane Pass Anglers Club. "It will not just be a place for fishing and diving, but someplace where veterans' families can go and put ashes or have memorial services."

Military Park is the second phase of the Veterans Reef project. The reef was completed in September, and the military artifacts will be located just to its north.

Working with Pinellas County, Pochurek plans to go to the military and other sources to find obsolete equipment such as tanks, vessels and artillery pieces to create Military Park.

The gray, rusting Navy bomber was donated to the county by Phil and Bud Brouchard, owners of the Florida Military Aviation Museum. The museum is moving to Wauchula from a site next to the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.

The aircraft is gutted, with anything environmentally hazardous removed. But gun barrels still poke out the nose. The belly of the plane has a bulge where radar was located. The propeller blades almost touch the ground.

If all goes as scheduled this week, a crane will load the vintage bomber onto a donated barge for its last trip. The airplane will be chained to the barge, its wheels fitted into holes cut into the deck. A county workboat will tow the barge out of Tampa Bay, under the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and up the coast to the reef site.

On Saturday, the Hillsborough County Bomb Squad will place and detonate small, explosive charges on the barge. The explosions will be designed to perforate airtight chambers, but not damage the barge's main structure.

Serving as a permanent underwater platform, the 150-foot-long barge with its historic load is expected to sink upright to the bottom, 43 feet below.

Pochurek, of Palm Harbor, got the idea for Military Park during his campaign to create Veterans Reef. Many of the thousands of petition signatures he gathered in support of the project were those of veterans.

"I just thought it would be a good idea because we have so many veterans here," he said. "It's going to be a special place for them and their families."

Dr. Heyward Mathews, a marine biologist and an artificial reef advisor for the county, is helping oversee the project. He said the bomber's wings had to be removed to get the barge through bridges on its way to the reef site.

The wings provide lift, so they will not be reattached to the fuselage. Mathews said the aircraft would tear itself to pieces from the torque of the wings underwater. The wings and other removed parts eventually will be placed on the gulf bottom near the bomber.

He expects the aircraft to be as successful at attracting and holding fish as adjacent Veterans Reef, which is home now to gray snapper, small grouper and a jewfish.

"There was fish on Veterans Reef within weeks," Mathews said. "It's already covered with algae, and the whole reef population builds up from that. As time goes on, there'll be barnacles channeling plankton, then some coral and then sponges."

Veterans Reef cost $270,000, which came from the county's Boating Improvement Fund, and is the first in the county designed with five types of structure for a study of what attracts fish, he said.

The reef is composed of chunks of limestone; three steel barges with large holes; two trolling alleys built of 100 hollow pyramids 6 feet tall; large concrete pipes; and a pile of tetrahedrons. Different buoys will be placed on the structures to let anglers know what's on the bottom.

"We're going to be counting fish to determine the attraction of each type of structure," Mathews said. "We'll find out which gives us the highest angler attraction for future reefs and gives us information to work out a management plan."

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 27, 2000