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Titanic explorer assists in downed Turkish jet recovery

By Ivan Watson and Yesim Comert, CNN
July 6, 2012 -- Updated 0445 GMT (1245 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Nautilus is under Turkish military command for the operation, Unal says
  • The bodies of the two pilots were recovered Thursday
  • The Nautilus was to explore the Black Sea before it agreed to help in the recovery
  • The Turkish jet was shot down by Syria June 22

Istanbul (CNN) -- The American exploration vessel "Nautilus" was supposed to begin broadcasting its undersea archeological and environmental exploration of the Black Sea July 7, according to the expedition's Facebook page.

Instead, two days before the launch date, the ship was in Syrian territorial waters in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, assisting with the recovery of the bodies of two Turkish pilots killed when their reconnaissance jet was shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft defenses.

The military search and recovery operation marked an unexpected change of course for a research expedition led by Robert Ballard, the undersea explorer who gained fame for discovering the wreckage of the Titanic in the Atlantic Ocean in the 1980s.

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"I think it was our luck that the Nautilus was already docked in Istanbul," said Selcuk Unal, a spokesman for Turkey's foreign ministry. "It had (previously) applied and been approved by our government to perform scientific research in the Aegean Sea and the Black Sea."

Unal told CNN that after the Turkish Phantom RF-4 reconnaissance jet was shot down June 22, Turkish authorities recognized the need for resources capable of operating at extreme depths for the salvage operation.

"When this incident happened, we immediately looked into our resources, including the military and private sector," Unal said.

But he added that few governments or corporations had submersibles capable of traveling to depths of more than 1,000 meters.

The Nautilus, however, specializes in this type of work.

"E/V Nautilus is a 211-foot research vessel equipped with state-of-the-art exploration and telepresence technology," said a statement on the expedition's official website. "Our rotating Corps of Exploration aboard Nautilus will be mapping the geological, biological, archaeological and chemical aspects of these regions to depths of approximately 2,000 meters."

The website also said the Nautilus was equipped with several remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) that typically worked at extreme depths.

"We started to talk to them," Unal explained. "They were kind enough to postpone their scientific research for some time and join the search and rescue operation... they departed Istanbul immediately, and they arrived to the search and rescue area in two-and-a-half days."

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The Turkish military already had a number of vessels and aircraft operating in the crash zone, an area within Syrian territorial waters. But the operation was tense; Turkish officials said Syrian defenses opened fire on a second Turkish plane that was brought in after the Phantom RF-4 was initially shot down.

Turkish officials say the Nautilus is effectively under Turkish military command while participating in the recovery operation.

"We can't risk anything," Unal said. "As part of our agreement, there are still people as we speak from my ministry and from the navy and Turkish air force for coordination purposes on board the Nautilus."

According to a Turkish military statement, the "Nautilus ship continued a deep search at points determined by Turkish Coast Guard (ship) Cesme by sonar, on 3-4 July, 2012, and the bodies of our pilots and some parts of the plane were reached."

The bodies of Gokhan Ertan and Hasan Huseyin Aksoy were recovered Thursday. They await a memorial ceremony at a Turkish airbase in Malatya on Friday.

When contacted by CNN, a spokeswoman for the Nautilus' National Geographic-affiliated expedition said the group would not be commenting on its participation in the Turkish recovery operation.

Scientists at the expedition's command center on the campus of the University of Rhode Island also said they could not comment on the emergency operation, though one scientist told a colleague that after the unexpected delay, he was "eager to get back to doing science" as soon as possible.

The Turkish armed forces have released photographs of pieces of the downed Turkish jet resting on the Mediterranean sea bed. It is highly likely that the photographs were taken by the Nautilus' ROVs.

These photos could hold valuable evidence about what weapon was used to shoot down the jet. The Syrian government insists anti-aircraft cannons brought the jet down when it flew within sight of the Syrian coast.

Turkey says the jet was flying 13 nautical miles off the Syrian shore, in international airspace, when it was struck by a Syrian surface-to-air missile. Syria's president suggested the military may have thought it was a plane belonging to Israel.

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