When the Turkish Government Called, URI Was There

When a foreign government in the middle of a tense international conflict needs help on short notice locating military equipment at the bottom of the sea, who do they turn to? Oceanography Professor Robert Ballard, Ph.D. ’75 and his team of scientists and students, of course.

In July, Ballard’s team was preparing to depart from Istanbul aboard the ship Nautilus for a scientific mission to the Black Sea and the eastern Mediterranean, when a Turkish military jet was shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft defenses. The Turkish government asked for Ballard’s assistance to find the jet and recover the pilots’ bodies. With the approval of the U.S. State Department, Ballard—along with Associate Professor Chris Roman, ocean engineering grad student Mike Filimon ’11, Graduate School of Oceanography alumni Katy Croff Bell, Ph.D. ’11 and Mike Brennan, M.A. ’08, Ph.D. ’12 and many colleagues—went to work. Within a week, the wreckage had been found and the pilots’ bodies returned to Turkey.

The effort was possible because of the scientists’ training and experience and the state-of-the-art technologies they had at their disposal, including remotely operated vehicles and side-scan sonar.

The Turkish ambassador, who was aboard throughout the operation, was so impressed with the recovery effort that he offered to purchase the ship and all the equipment aboard for his country’s military operations. “I told him that it’s not the ship and the technology that he needs,” said Ballard. “He needs the expertise of our scientists, most of whom earned degrees from the Graduate School of Oceanography.”

That conversation has already led to discussions about enrolling Turkish students at GSO so that the next time the government needs to search the seafloor, they’ll know how to do it themselves.