Mystic — Bob Ballard, who heads the Ocean Exploration Center at Mystic Aquarium, was on vacation in Jackson Hole, Wyo., on June 22 when he received a call from the U.S. ambassador to Turkey.
The Syrian military had just shot down a Turkish RF-4E Phantom jet fighter off the Syrian coast, and the Turkish government was looking for his help finding the wreckage and recovering the bodies of the two pilots.
The EV/Nautilus, the Ocean Exploration Trust ship that Ballard uses for his expeditions, was in Istanbul, Turkey, getting ready to launch his summer expedition to find ancient wrecks in the Mediterranean and Black seas.
The ambassador, Francis J. Ricciardone, had been on the Nautilus last year and knew it was outfitted with two sophisticated, remotely operated vehicles that can illuminate search areas, transmit high-definition video images and recover objects in water as deep as 4,000 meters, three times the expected depth of the sunken wreckage.
So Ballard, who is best known for his discovery of the Titanic, as well as PT-109 and the Bismarck, and his team of partner organizations and scientists agreed to delay their work to search for the jet.
Details of the search and recovery operation, which Ballard had not been able to discuss until now, are contained in a description of the operation released Wednesday by the Ocean Exploration Trust.
Ballard arrived in Turkey on July 3 and boarded a Turkish frigate to rendezvous with the Nautilus, which was conducting a test dive in Turkish waters near the Syrian border. During the trip, a Turkish commodore briefed Ballard about the downing of the jet and the recovery effort. The two ships then made their way to the area where the jet was last seen, which was now being patrolled by warships from both nations.
When it arrived, the Nautilus immediately began exploring the first two of eight targets identified by sonar that could be the debris of the jet. The first target turned out to be a shipping container, so the ship and ROVs Argus and Hercules moved to the location of an oil slick spotted by a Turkish helicopter less than two hours after the crash.
As they approached that location, they began to see pieces of debris, which they examined and videotaped during the evening of July 3 and into July 4.
They found hundreds of pieces of debris and recovered some of the pieces. They also found the two bodies of the pilots on the sea floor.
The Nautilus crew used a device called an “elevator,” which is used to recover scientific samples and archaeological artifacts from the ocean floor, to bring the bodies to the surface.
According to the Ocean Exploration Trust, the elevator “is an aluminum framed basket with net meshing on the bottom and a series of glass ball floats to provide buoyancy on the top, steel weights to carry it to the sea floor, and a tracking transponder to guide the vehicles to its final location once it lands on bottom.”
The elevator was lowered 350 meters from where the body of the junior officer, Lt. Hasan Huseyin Aksoy, was located.
The Nautilus then launched the Argus and Hercules ROVs, which made their way to the elevator.
The pilot of the Hercules, who was onboard the Nautilus, then used its two manipulator arms to lift Lt. Aksoy’s body by two straps attached to his flight suit into the net meshing while lowering a second meshing over the body.
The steel weights were released and the elevator rose to the surface and was recovered by the Nautilus. Aksoy was given full military honors and immediately transferred to the Turkish frigate.
The Nautilus then recovered the body of the senior officer, Capt. Gokhan Ertan, in a similar manner. Ballard briefed Turkish officials on land and returned to the United States on July 6.
On Thursday afternoon, Ballard will be at the aquarium to formally kick off the Nautilus’ slightly delayed expedition to the deep waters of the Black, Aegean and Mediterranean seas off Turkey and Cyprus. During a 1:30 p.m. press conference in the aquarium’s Nautilus Live Theater, Ballard will talk live with expedition leader Katy Croff Bell, who is aboard the Nautilus in the Black Sea.
Visitors to the aquarium’s new Ocean Exploration Center, which features Ballard’s discoveries and a new Titanic exhibit, will be able to watch live feeds this summer from the Nautilus in a 50-seat theater. Because of the telepresence technology developed by Ballard, visitors will also be able to talk to scientists aboard the ship.
Six times a day through September, there will be shows in which a Nautilus team member will explain to the audience what they are seeing on the screen and answer questions.