UNDATED (CBS) -- A surprise discovery off the coast of Florida, dating back more than 60 years to the World War II era. CB News went beneath the surface to uncover how one of the rulers of the sky, has become a mystery of the sea.
Off the coast of Miami Beach recently four people boarded a mini-submarine about the size of a compact car. After a safety check captain Stockton Rush, CEO of Oceangate, the company that owns the sub, initiated our descent. It felt like a slow, gentle ride on an elevator.
In less than 10 minutes they were on the ocean floor, 180 feet under water. Then, with guidance from a vessel on the surface, they followed the sloping floor downward until suddenly, there it was, half buried in the sand.
Chip Reid with CBS News says, "We're now on the bottom of the Atlantic 240 feet down just off the coast of Miami and that is a Navy F6F Hellcat that was lost sometime between 1943 and 1952 when 79 of those planes disappeared in this area. The trick now is to try to figure out which one this was."
Rush discovered the Hellcat purely by chance while inspecting artificial reefs for Miami-Dade County. At first he thought it was a shipwreck but the image on the sonar screen showed the unmistakable shape of an aircraft.
Rush contacted the U.S. Navy which sent Navy archeologist Heather Brown. During our two hour tour she took extensive notes and dozens of photographs. She says, "There's a lot of wrecks that come down and they break up or they cartwheel around and this looks like a classic water landing so everything is intact, which is great."
The Hellcat was one of the heroes of world war two. It ruled the skies of the Pacific, destroying more than 5,200 Japanese aircraft. More than 12,000 Hellcats were produced during World War II, but few are left which makes this a very special discovery for the Navy. Browns says, "We have sort of two goals when we're looking at things, one is to help try to identify and make sure we can tell the models apart and try to find the individual aircraft's number. But we also want to assess its condition."
Seventy-nine hellcats were lost off the Florida coast during training accidents. If Brown determines this one went down with the pilot on board, the navy will attempt to bring it up and deliver the remains to his family. Brown says it could be months before she has answers. Brown says, "It can take quite a while and sometimes we just can't tell."
Mini-sub captain Stockton Rush says nothing beats the underwater thrill of stumbling upon something as significant as a Navy Hellcat. He says, "That moment when you come to see it on the sonar and then that's followed by a visual identification, is really quite a shock. You just never know exactly what you are going to find."
Rush, who had originally wanted to explore space as an astronaut, says he now believes there are even more mysteries under the sea.