10 MAY 2014: I was on my way back to Orkney for a long-awaited trip to revisit the wrecks of the WW1 German Imperial fleet. For any diver interested in wartime wrecks, Scapa Flow is a must.
It is rated as one of the world’s top three dive-sites – and, unlike the other two, this one is in UK waters.
Even so, the long drive from London was not appealing, so I flew to Aberdeen. The connecting flight was not so stress-free, but we made it to Kirkwall by sea only 10 hours late!
Our base was the Valkyrie, a converted trawler based in the harbour at Stromness. Beautifully appointed, the vessel is very comfortable and meticulously run by skipper Hazel Weaver, with crew Helen Hadley and Rob Baxandall.
Just before leaving for Orkney Alex Khachadourian of DIVER, knowing that aircraft greatly interested me, had mentioned that a WW2 aircraft had been located in the Flow only a couple of months ago.
About 20 years ago, a piece of aircraft airframe snagged in some fishing gear, and was brought up and dumped on Scapa pier. A local man picked it up, took it home and left it in his garage.
Many years later, he heard that ARGOS (Aviation Research Group Orkney & Shetland, not the high-street retailer!) was researching missing aircraft. He contacted the organisation, which came to examine the mysterious object.
By comparing diagrams and matching up part numbers, it became apparent that the fragment was almost certainly from a Grumman Wildcat or Martlet.

RECORDS SHOWED THAT only one Grumman Wildcat, JV571, went missing in Scapa Flow. The single-seater fighter had been stationed on HMS Trumpeter, and the ship’s log, obtained from the National Archives, revealed that at 10.45 on the morning of 2 December, 1944, three Wildcats and two Avengers were launched to fly to Hatston.
As the result of a faulty retaining ring on the ship’s catapult , JV571 was prematurely launched while still preparing for take-off, and “fell off” the port side. The pilot, Sub/Lt EE Ames RN, was rescued unhurt. JV571 was listed as a total write-off and forgotten.
Many years later, on 6 February this year, wreck-hunter Kevin Heath of ARGOS was able to calculate the probable trajectory of the plane at the last recorded point of take-off and, using the latest scanning equipment, spotted an object on the seabed.
The discovery was confirmed by Kevin on 10 March, when a Seabotix ROV sent back images of the Wildcat JV571.

I ASKED SKIPPER HAZEL if she knew anything about the aircraft wreck, and to my delight she told me that her crew and Kevin Heath were the only ones to know the exact location. In fact, Rob Baxandall had been the first person to dive it.
My excitement was soon quelled when I asked if we could dive the wreck. Hazel was very sorry, but she was unable to take us to the site for fear of the secrecy of the location being compromised.
I promised to pester her all week until I got my way. “Try, you never know,” said Hazel with a smile. A glimmer of hope
Day three, and the conditions were flat-calm and sunny. “Any chance today, Hazel” I asked, but I didn’t get the response I wanted.
However, I was dekitting after a fantastic dive on the Markgraf when the exciting news I had almost resigned myself to not hearing was whispered in my ear. We were heading for the Wildcat!
There were no other boats in the Flow that day, so Hazel was satisfied that there would be no prying eyes in the vicinity.
Video footage from the initial discovery showed the Wildcat to lie upside-down at 35m. Rob briefed us at the site, and a shotline was dropped with extreme precision about 6m off the wreck. At last I was on my way to look for the elusive Wildcat.
As only the second group of divers allowed on the site, the sense of privilege was huge, and a first for me. Care was needed not to stir up the very silty seabed – but unfortunately what should not have happened did, and a huge cloud enveloped us.

VERY FRUSTRATED, I remained above the cloud and, with my buddy Jean Marc Jefferson, started a search pattern. JM came across a detached wheel first. It was clearly from the Grumman because of its distinctive “grapefruit-segment” wheel.
This was a relief to find, but it was just a wheel. Our deco time was racking up but we persevered. Then, in the corner of my eye, I spotted something glinting.
There it was, the still very silver-looking fuel tank and, just in front of it, the distinctive nine-cylinder Curtiss Wright radial engine. The Valkyrie crew could have heard our shrieks of joy!
As luck would have it my strobe malfunctioned, and I could take only a few shots in ambient light.
No matter, we were on the Wildcat. It was missing a propeller, which had detached itself when the plane crashed, but the engine was an impressive sight, the oil-cooler clearly visible.
The wing spars and stringers were in remarkably good condition, with the guns still in place. The still-intact starboard-side undercarriage was housed in its correct location just behind the engine. Wildcats had a unique landing-gear stowage system that stowed just forward of the wings in the underside of the fuselage.
What a sight, and what a dive! I could have stayed there for ages spotting bits and pieces, but it was time to leave the Wildcat for a slow journey to the surface.
The wreck has been registered with the Hydrographic Office and has a mark valid for five years, allowing only a handful of authorised people access to its exact location.
My thanks to Hazel, Helen and Rob for laying on my most memorable dive.