Two gutted fighter jets became the latest addition to a growing artificial reef program as the aircraft splashed into the Gulf of Mexico to cheers and honks from boatloads of onlookers late last week.
The retired F101 Voodoo fighter jets had been displayed at a downtown marina and a local college but had to be moved because of construction at both spots.
“Instead of scrapping them, we were able to use them as reefs,” said Bay County Commissioner Bill Dozier, who was on hand to watch the jets sink about 76 feet into the Gulf off Panama City Beach.
Patrick Green, a local dive shop owner, dove to the site moments after the sinking.
“Surprisingly, there were actually fish on the bottom already,” said Green, the first to visit the site, about three miles off the beach. It also includes more than a dozen prefabricated concrete reef modules, sunk to help attract more marine life.
“These reefs are going to be fantastic attraction for local divers and a new spot for fisherman to fish as well,” Green said. More fish and marine life will continue to gather as the site becomes more established, he added.
The Bay County Tourist Development Council provided $30,000 to sink the jets, and $60,000 from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission’s artificial reef program was used to build and sink the reef modules.
The F101 Voodoo fighter jets are special to the area because they were flown by former members of the Bay County commission and because they’ve been on display in the area for years, said Scott Jackson, an expert on artificial reef projects who works for the county.
Other sunken aircraft have been used as dive sites and reefs in the area, but they are too deep for inexperienced divers, Green said.
“This is a perfect, nonchallenging dive,” he said.
Before they were sunk, the jets were gutted and attached to concrete anchors. Both jets were slowly lifted from the barge and briefly floated on top of the Gulf before they headed toward the ocean floor.