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Soaring above, diving below

Camden’s Hayes lifetime of adventures stretch from Air Force pilot to underwater surveyor

Posted: October 1, 2013 5:58 p.m.
Updated: October 2, 2013 5:00 a.m.

Camden resident Chuck Hayes’ lifetime of outdoor adventure began growing up in Dillon County with camping and swamp explorations as a youngster. But as a high school junior on January 8, 1951, he experienced a turning point that set a course for his lifetime.

“I was with four friends, fishing and hunting, in the big Pee Dee River swamp when three of them turned over the small boat they were in while in Black Creek. That wasn’t so bad, however, two of my friends lost their grandfathers’ shotguns and that was real bad!” Hayes said.

For the last year, Hayes had been skin diving with a mask and fins in the Little Pee Dee.

“At that time, I didn’t even use a snorkel,” he said. “With visibility only about a foot or so on a good day on the Little Pee Dee, and more like 6 inches in the Big Pee Dee, there wasn’t much use for a snorkel. I’d been a water person all my life, and we really needed to find those shotguns.”

So, undeterred by cold and black water, without a wetsuit, Hayes and one of his friends, Mickey Dew, and Mickey’s father returned to the scene of the capsizing. Hayes recovered one of the shotguns the next day, diving in 12 to 15 feet of water.

“When I got out of the water, I was freezing and shaking with cold so hard there was no way I could get back into the water. Why we never went back in warm months, I’ll never know. I guess we were more interested in girls than shotguns,” Hayes said.

Enrolled at Virginia Tech as a sophomore, Hayes took and passed the Aviation Cadet Test and joined the Air Force to await a pilot training class assignment. He was ultimately commissioned in May 1955 and, simultaneously, received his pilot wings. Hayes served as a U.S. Air Force officer and pilot for the next 21 years.

“In 1959, the Air Force decided they needed more meteorologists and asked me if I’d like to be sent to Florida State University on an assignment to complete a bachelor degree in meteorology,” Hayes says. “It was an easy decision to be paid as a first lieutenant to attend college and be provided aircraft to fly. Not only did I receive my degree, but I also started SCUBA diving in Wakulla Springs, just south of Tallahassee.”

Hayes would fill out his “dream sheet,” a list of potential future duty assignments submitted to the Air Force, to “wherever the water was clear and warm. From then on, I traveled the world with the Air Force and always had my diving gear.”  

During the next 16 years, Hayes served in the military, diving whenever he could find the time off duty. After receiving his meteorology degree, he was sent to London and European Weather Central for a year.

“When Vietnam was ginned up, I was recalled back to primarily flying service and was transferred from England to Scotland and learned how to fly the HU-16 Albatross, an amphibious aircraft used for search and rescue. While the water was clear off England and Scotland, it wasn’t very warm!” Hayes joked.

On leave, he’d travel on military hops to warmer water locations. One such trip from Scotland allowed him to find what he considered the best diving his travels ever found: Libya. Off the Libyan coast, adjacent to the ancient ruined Roman cities of Leptis Magna and Sabratha, the waters were pristine and full of relics thousands of years old, Hayes recalled.

He’s sure he wasn’t the first diver to see these underwater sights, but…

“I’m sure not many SCUBA divers had been there, the dive sites were the most unspoiled I’d ever seen,” Hayes said.

Later in his career, he jumped at an opportunity to be stationed in Libya. Most Air Force pilots wouldn’t consider being stationed at Wheeles AFB just outside of Tripoli a “dream assignment,” but Hayes told it differently

“For me, it was a dream come true to have that diving immediately accessible for an entire tour of duty. I spent every spare moment up and down diving spots on the Libyan coast,” Hayes said. “As a pilot, I flew 8 different aircraft in combat missions from the reconnaissance ‘O-1 Birddog’ to B-52s. In three combat tours in Southeast Asia, 393 missions, I started with the HU-16 amphibian air rescue in 1965 and, in 1966, I served as a forward air controller with a regiment of the South Korean army that came to help in Vietnam.”

Needless to say, on leave he dove extensively along the coast of Vietnam and Thailand.

As a forward air controller, Hayes rotated between the jungle -- where he would coordinate U.S. Air Force missions to support the Korean regiment and to assess ground targets before and after missions -- and the air, where he would fly the “O-1 Birddog,” as an aerial spotter marking ground targets with white phosphorus (WP) rockets for attack aircraft.

“Flying low and slow did make an inviting target at times, but other than a few bullet holes in the aircraft now and then it wasn’t too bad,” Hayes said, “but I did feel safer underwater in Vietnam than in the air!”

When working as a flying forward air controller, he was quartered in Qui Nhon and joked about an “essential role” he fulfilled.

“Because I had some French in high school, I served as our Qui Nhon rental property coordinator. When we were in the jungle we didn’t need French because we lived in tents!” he said.

During his service in Southeast Asia, Hayes received the Distinguished Flying Cross and 19 air medals.

On a three-year tour in Italy, Hayes dove regularly in Italy, Sardinia, Sicily, and in “Yugolavia when it was still a country.”

When a local Italian diver friend learned Hayes had been doing some deep dives to 150 feet in a beautiful clear water spring at the foothills of the Alps near Aviano, Italy, the friend invited him on a unique dive to the bottom of the spring. After careful planning and arranging proper decompression intervals, the divers went to the bottom of the spring and set an Italian record for the deepest recorded cave dive: 280 feet. Today, this remains very impressive because this was done on simple compressed air, in an era before safer nitrox or helium/oxygen mixtures were available for sport divers. The dive also turned out to be somewhat of a treasure hunt. For years, locals had tossed coins into the deep spring and Hayes and his friends collected many of the coins and donated them to a local church. The divers also installed a statue of Christ with uplifted arms on the bottom of the spring similar to other such statues installed worldwide in renowned dive sites.

On a particularly memorable dive trip to Ethiopia, the local populace and Ethiopian military were amazed to discover Americans coming to visit their country for diving and sightseeing historic sites. Hayes’ dive buddy and fellow U.S. Air Force officer, Willie May, knew Hayes had made the promotion list and planned a dive on the day Hayes was allowed to wear the golden Oak Leaf Cluster, designating his new rank of major. Later that evening, May threw an impromptu party and a high-ranking Ethiopian officer in charge of organizing the fledgling Ethiopian Army pinned the Oak Leaf Cluster on the new major.

Hayes retired from the Air Force in 1975 and built a retirement home in North Myrtle Beach on the Intracoastal Waterway, closer to his childhood home of Latta, but only stayed for four and a half years. He said he couldn’t resist the allure of the clear warm waters of the Florida Keys where he felt the diving was the best in the continental U.S. Hayes and his wife Maria moved to Key Largo, Fla., where he would spend the next 23 years.

“In the Keys, I was diving everyday when the seas were less than 5 feet and the weather wasn’t dangerous,” Hayes explained. “Initially, I focused on my love of underwater archaeology and looked for old Spanish shipwrecks.”

But eventually, he expanded his exploration and began charting anything “unusual and out of the ordinary, including natural coral formations or coral reefs that were deteriorating.”

Being out almost every day in the waters of the Upper Keys, he drew the attention of the National Marine Sanctuary in the Key Largo area.

“They realized with my years of surveying and recording GPS locations, I was one of the most site-knowledgeable local divers,” Hayes said, “and they came up with a great offer I couldn’t refuse.”

The sanctuary offered Hayes an opportunity to chart the Upper Keys for them in exchange for gas and boat maintenance cost, and free air fillings for his SCUBA tanks as a full-time volunteer.

“As a retired Air Force major, you’re not on much retirement pay, but when the National Marine Sanctuary basically offers you an opportunity to do what you love to do, for free, it was perfect for me,” Hayes said.

For the next 15 years, Hayes continued his underwater survey and recorded his findings for the National Marine Sanctuary.

Hayes and a diving buddy pioneered an interesting “drift diving” technique. Finding an area of interest, they would drop anchor and explore the bottom and then ascend up the anchor line, tie a loop in the line and hook the anchor in the loop. The divers would hold onto the now suspended anchor line and drift with the unmoored boat. If they encountered an area of interest, they would simply remove the anchor from the loop and drop the anchor to the bottom. This allowed Hayes to explore the area, return to the surface, and record the GPS location of the site.

Hayes even got back in the air occasionally with a friend who owned an amphibian aircraft and on calm days could spot wrecks from the air, do a water landing, and dive to inspect the wreck. On one dive, Hayes discovered an underwater pile of bricks near a reef. He surmised that a ship might have run aground on the way to Key West or to the Dry Tortugas to build Fort Jefferson (a twin to South Carolina’s Fort Sumter), and heaved the heavy cargo overboard to float off the reef at high tide. He recovered and still has one of the bricks marked Baltimore Block.

“Back then it was permissible to keep some things that would be illegal to recover today, so I was at the right spot in the right time,” Hayes said.

The culmination of more than 20 years of underwater exploration of the Upper Keys resulted in the publication of a five-volume book titled “Submerged Cultural Resources of the Florida Keys” that is still extensively used by the National Marine Sanctuary. Hayes also had an opportunity to meet a lot of treasure hunters in the Keys, including Mel Fisher of Atochia fame.

“The sanctuary and treasure hunters often didn’t get along very well,” Hayes recalled, “but because of my ‘unofficial’ position, I was a conduit for information both of the groups could benefit from. Treasure hunters gave me information on undersea areas of interest and I could help coordinate treasure hunters with their searches and keep them on the correct side of Federal and Florida laws concerning marine parks and salvage operations.”

Chuck and Maria Hayes moved to Camden 11 years ago and while less frequently, Hayes still occasionally dives. Three years ago, reunited with his original high school friends from that cold January day in 1951, he returned with full SCUBA equipment and a wetsuit. With the passage of almost 60 years, the old friends had difficulty identifying the original capsize site and ultimately were unable to locate the still missing shotgun.

“No doubt it was deep in river bottom mud. While we did get a strong signal from an underwater metal detector, with strong currents and almost zero visibility, we never did find it. So we decided to leave the shotgun’s discover to another generation of underwater explorers,” Hayes thoughtfully recounted.

As an Air Force pilot, Hayes logged more than 5,500 hours and as a diver, he has no idea, but states it is probably more than 15,000 hours. He’s quick to point out when asked if he preferred the flying or the diving, he never had to make a choice, he got to do both.

“I’ve had a really good life, with ups and downs, but I can’t complain at all,” he said. “I’ve traveled a good part of the world, lived in nine countries, and enjoyed them all from the air and below the sea. In the military you don’t make a lot of money but you always know where the next meal is coming from and have a roof over your head. And how else could I have done these things I love so well?”

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