CHARLOTTE – Members of the Charlotte Fire Department’s dive team were undergoing standard training Sept. 5 when their sonar equipment inadvertently stumbled upon something strange along the muddy bottom of Lake Norman.
The clear image they captured turned out to be the wreckage of a small plane, said Rob Brisley, public information officer with the department.
A two-person dive team traveled about 90 feet below the surface to find the single-engine plane. There was no evidence of any human remains onboard, Brisley said.
It was located in the lake’s main channel near the Mecklenburg-Iredell county line.
A description of the plane, as well as its tail number information, was turned over to Federal Aviation Administration officials. Brisley said the plane’s make and model hasn’t yet been determined. It is also unknown how long the plane had been underwater before it was discovered.
Kathleen Bergen, public information officer for the southern region of the FAA, verified that the agency hasn’t been able to identify the aircraft type or why it sank in the first place.
“The FAA is investigating and is conducting a search of the aircraft ownership records in an effort to determine the aircraft’s last owner,” she said.
Bergen added that it is not the FAA’s job to remove aircrafts from the water. That responsibility falls on the owner’s shoulders.
Davidson College Archivist Jan Blodgett and Mooresville Public Library Curator of Special Collections both told The Herald Weekly that they did not know of any other airplanes that have sank in Lake Norman over its 50-year history.
David Caldwell, environmental supervisor for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services water quality division, said that if the plane has been submerged about 90 feet deep for a number of years, or even decades, there probably isn’t any negative environmental impact for it staying put.
“Due to the water pressure at that depth, any fuel that could have been in the plane is likely gone at this point,” he said. “If someone decided to pull it out and it was salvaged and brought to the surface, we would want to monitor that situation to see if there was any oil that came up when the lake bottom was disturbed.”
Fuel still surfaces from battleships that sank at Pearl Harbor in 1941, Caldwell added.
He noted that the amount of fuel a single-engine plane could carry would be miniscule compared to the total water capacity of the lake. A small portion of fuel could be trapped in the plane though, he added.
“In all honesty, there’s no telling what’s down in that lake,” he said. “It was built in the 1960s, and I’m kind of surprised they found it.”
Caldwell stressed that it’s hard to know what time frame a small plane would need to be underwater before the environmental impact would be negligible, but said 30 years may be a good estimate.
Lisa Hoffman, Duke Energy spokeswoman, said water quality specialists on staff agreed with Caldwell.
Given the information the company is aware of, she said, which is the assumption that the plane’s been on the lake bottom for a number of years, leaving it undisturbed would probably be the best course of action.
“If it has been there for 30 years, any fuel would have been degraded by microbes by now, so there’s no advantage to moving it unless divers find something that would change the situation,” she said.
Duke Energy hasn’t investigated the site at all, Hoffman added.