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Search for missing female WWII pilot

October 6, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
Tuesday, specially trained divers scoured an area of the Pacific Ocean near LAX hoping to solve a mystery six decades in the making.Gertrude Tompkins Silver was a "WASP", one of the elite Women Air Force Service Pilots flying non-combat missions during World War II.

Silver had just been secretly married, which was against military regulations.

Silver disappeared in 1944 with her P-51 Mustang vanishing just after take-off from Mines Field, better known now as Los Angeles International Airport.

"She was the last of a flight of three," said aviation archaeologist Pat Macha. "She flew into a heavy cloud or fog bank and was never seen again."

Macha and a team of volunteers have been searching for the wreckage of Silver's plane for more than a decade. She was one of 38 WASPS killed in the line of duty during World War II.

"She is the only one still missing and unaccounted for," said Macha. "Our mission is to find her and to close that chapter in history.

The search ramped up on Tuesday when 10 specially trained divers, some FBI, volunteered their time to the search.

"There will be a sonar scan boat out there checking targets in advance on the divers," said volunteer searcher Gene Ralston. "They'll know exactly where to go, exactly where to dive."

Ralston uses side-scan sonar to pinpoint underwater targets that could be Silver's plane.

Ralston has used this same technology in the underwater searches for several high-profile murder victims like Laci Peterson, Stacy Peterson and Natalee Holloway.

Tuesday's search could mean closure for Sliver's family, including her grandniece Laura Whittall-Scherfee.

"For us it's amazing that this many people are willing to donate their time and equipment, their expertise," said Whittall-Scherfee.

Silver's 100-year-old sister, Elizabeth Whittall, is looking forward to some form of closure.

"We loved her dearly," Whittall said. "I saw a lot of her and growing up we were very close."

The ongoing search for Silver has already led to answers for two other families.

"We accidently discovered the wreck of a T-33 Air Force jet that disappeared October 15, 1955, with a crew of two," said Macha. "After all those years at least they have closure, they know the fate of their loved ones."

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