Hilton Head Island

Hilton Head woman hopes for answers as divers investigate plane wreckage

gmartin@islandpacket.comAugust 6, 2012 

Penny Malphrus says she's seen many faces in the past 16 years, but none has belonged to her father.

"I'm still looking for him every day," she says. "Everywhere I go, I look for him."

Her father, prominent Hilton Head Island businessman Stewart Dunbar, was the pilot and sole occupant of a plane that crashed off the coast of Jacksonville, Fla., in 1996. Neither his body nor the plane was recovered.

That may change later this week, when a team of Florida divers hopes to investigate a recently discovered wreck of a twin-engine plane -- the same kind Dunbar had been flying -- 80 feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean.

Dunbar's family had operated Hilton Head's first working marina, Palmetto Bay Marina, which he managed before later working for Stoney Creek Realty in Bluffton. He first cultivated his interest in aviation as a student at Clemson University.

He was 58 when he was flying from Swainsboro, Ga. At about 7:45 p.m., he radioed the Federal Aviation Administration air traffic control center in Jacksonville that his vision was impaired and he was dizzy. He told controllers he was placing the plane on autopilot and turning toward the ocean.

That was his final communication.

His Piper Aerostar veered eastward and was last spotted about 465 miles off the coast at about 10:35 p.m. by Navy pilots who had flown from Charleston to offer aid but were unable to see inside the cockpit.

For Malphrus, closure could come from an unlikely source: Joe Kistel, the executive director of a nonprofit marine conservation company in Jacksonville.

In early July, Kistel was taking photos for his group's interactive reef-map project when his depth finder indicated a school of fish near the ocean floor.

Upon diving to investigate, Kistel quickly realized he'd stumbled onto a mystery.

He found two Lycoming piston engines -- the same kind used on Dunbar's plane -- in addition to an engine block and a bent propeller.

He posted photographs and video of the wreckage on his nonprofit's website in an appeal to the public to learn more about the aircraft.

He's still unsure what he discovered and hopes to learn more on a return dive this week. It would be helpful, he says, to find any part of the fuselage bearing the plane's serial number, which he could match with FAA records to determine its owner.

"There's something of value, some significant history down there," he said. "At the very least, there's probably some family that could get some closure from this."

He's heard various theories about what he discovered -- "anything from Flight 19 to Amelia Earhart," he says -- the most practical of which suggests the wreck is the result of an aborted training mission from a nearby military base.

He says he's also fielded calls from representatives of about a dozen families nationwide hoping that he had found a relative's final resting place.

"It's becoming somewhat overwhelming," he said. "The more families we talk to, the more motivated we are to help."

Malphrus says she might visit Kistel this week to learn about the dive's results.

"If (the plane) turns out to be his, that would be amazing," she said, adding that while she still searches for her father's face, the pain of his loss has softened.

"It's been 16 years, and I don't cry every day anymore," she said.

Related content:

Wreckage photos and video

Follow reporter Grant Martin at twitter.com/LowCoBiz.

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