Water Wings: The Launch of the Coral Reef Squadron

The last Dakota is lowered into the sea.

Out of its element and into another: The last Dakota is lowered into the sea.

Rainer Gottwald was fretting. The night before the final piece was put in place for his cherished dream – creating a new reef on the sea bed off Phuket from disused military aircraft – the barge being used in the project had broken free of its anchor.

The barge was secured, he explained, but the anchor was still AWOL. “We went down to look for it but we couldn’t find it,” he said. “It’s dark now, so we’ll be up really early tomorrow.”

After days of rain and low cloud, the following day dawned bright and clear. The crew recovered the anchor, lowered the last of six helicopters into position and were back onshore in time for the grand ceremony under the casuarina trees lining Layan Beach – speeches and exchanges of mementos – before queuing for the boat ride out to watch the final aircraft lowered to the sea bed.

It took 12 years from conception to completion for Rainer’s dream to come true. Twelve years of bargaining, cajoling and

Twelve years of planning and persuasion.

Rainer Gottwald: Twelve years of planning and persuasion.

persuading dozens of organisations, from the Royal Thai Navy to local government bodies, NGOs and even the US Government. Twelve years of fund-raising from sponsors, including Tawan Cruises, to gather the money required to create the artificial reef just off Katha Island.

But finally it was done. Watched by hundreds of people in a fleet of pleasure boats, dinghies and dive boats, the final Douglas C-47 Skytrain “Dakota” aircraft was swung out from the barge and then carefully lowered into the water.

With the plane sitting on the water, lines were cast off and the Dakota was then lowered further until its cockpit was submerged and then finally the tail fin disappeared beneath the surface. Accompanying it down, divers ensured it landed on the sea bed 25 metres below, in the right place and facing the right direction.

Phuket’s newest tourist attraction consists of four Dakotas at the four points of the compass, facing inward. Arrayed between them are four Sikorsky S-58T helicopters, with another two choppers sitting in the centre of what has come to be known as the Coral Reef Squadron, claimed to be the world’s largest artificial reef.

The Dakotas, robust, cheap workhorses regarded with affection by all those who flew them (and still fly them – there are a number still in the air) were given to Thailand by the US after seeing service in the Korean and Vietnam wars. As a matter of courtesy, the US was asked for its approval to sink the aircraft in the sea. Bureaucracy being what it is, it took almost a year for that approval to come through.

US Dakotas carrying paratroops for the invasion of France, 1944 - photo from USAF.

US Dakotas carrying paratroops for the invasion of France, 1944 - photo from USAF.

The design of the Dakota dates back to the mid-1930s, when the first aircraft were built for civilian use. The Dakota, the military version, played an essential part in the Allies’ victory in World War II in Europe and especially in the Pacific and Southeast Asia, where it was used to move soldiers ahead of fast-moving Japanese troops on the ground. It played an essential part in the Berlin Airlift of 1948 and was used as an aerial gunship and spy plane in the Vietnam War.

The helicopters that are the other component of the artificial reef date from rather later. First made for anti-submarine warfare in 1954, the Sikorsky S-58 became, like the Dakota, a general workhorse, used for transport, coast guard duties and air-sea rescue. S-58s were also used in the early days of NASA to retrieve Mercury capsules after splashdown.

The 10 aircraft of the Coral Reef Squadron may be obsolete but they are now performing one last useful role. Within minutes of the first plane being lowered, fish turned up to inspect it, and the numbers grow daily.

Artificial reefs are by no means a new idea. Their first use was military; the ancient Persians and the Romans used sunken ships to block waterways, locking enemy vessels in port or keeping them out. Fishermen, too, created artificial reefs after noticing that fish tended to congregate around wrecks. All sorts of artifacts have been used to make artificial reefs, from warships to aircraft, cars, tanks and even disused railway rolling stock.

Providing an exciting experience for divers, these reefs draw the crowds away from natural coral, giving the marine life there a much-needed rest from the constant parade of underwater tourists.

The aircraft making up the Coral Reef Squadron were stripped of all plastics and other environmentally undesirable materials, and had all sharp edges that might snag divers removed. Once on the seabed they were tethered in place by stainless steel chains attached to large concrete blocks. Both the Dakotas and the helicopters are made of aluminium, which corrodes very slowly in salt water, so they are expected to remain intact for a long time.

Initially, they will attract fish and other marine life looking for a safe haven from predators – or predators looking for other fish they can eat. Algae will grow on the surfaces, providing food, and gradually minerals will build up on the aircraft, providing anchorage for coral planulae to attach themselves and grow.

So does Rainer Gottwald experience a massive surge of relief as the last plane goes down? Elation at a long job finally done? A feeling of let-down now that it’s all over? “Not really,” he says. He’s too busy, he explains, thinking about and organising the other projects of the Thai Diving Association, of which he is a founder, and which was a main driving force in the creation of the Coral Reef Squadron.

Right now his main energies are chanelled into a huge programme to draw Thai kids into diving, with the aim of educating them up to instructor level and beyond or, at the very least, getting them to understand the marine ecology that surrounds them.

There are also distant plans for more artificial reefs. One may be planted off the shores of Krabi, while the tourism industry in Khao Lak, north of Phuket, is lobbying for a reef to be created off that shore, in order to add to the area’s tourist attractions.

Certainly, divers love the idea. On one online message board for divers, a member posted a newspaper report about the Coral Reef Squadron, adding just one word: “Hooray!”


This article was published in Prajan Magazine in January 2009.
© Copyright Alasdair Forbes 2009

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3 Responses to “Water Wings: The Launch of the Coral Reef Squadron”

  1. Hello just wanted to give you a quick heads up and let you know a few
    of the pictures aren’t loading correctly. I’m not sure why but I think
    its a linking issue. I’ve tried it in two different web browsers and both
    show the same results.

  2. They look okay to me. Using Chrome.

  3. Update: Some six months later a violent storm blew through Phuket and ripped apart and scattered the aircraft all over the seabed.

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