The Hunt for Clint Eastwood's AD-1 SkyraiderLatest update June 13, 2019 Started on August 13, 2017
On 30 September 1951 a Navy AD-1 Skyraider aircraft, having been lost in weather and out of fuel, ditched in the water off of Point Reyes, California. The pilot and passenger escaped the sinking airplane but nearly drowned in the rough shorebreak.
The passenger on that long-ago flight is still alive today. His name is Clint Eastwood.
We're going to find that plane.
A couple of months ago I was in Novato for some stuff, and decided to fill out the day by taking a drive out to Point Reyes and Abbotts Lagoon. If you recall, Clint probably came ashore on the south side of Abbotts Lagoon before crawling (literally) to the RCA Radio Station (KPH) located a ways inland. See the attached map.
Here are some photos I took of the area while standing on the top of the dunes just to the north of Abbotts Lagoon. The beach shot shows the lagoon entrance and the beach south of the lagoon- it is here where Clint likely came ashore. The extreme telephoto shot shows radio station KPH as seen from the dune. The location of KPH is just to the left of the first shot, out of the frame.
At the current time I believe the remains of the Skyraider are likely on a line visible in the beach photograph, offshore and somewhat to the south of the lagoon entrance. Over the next handful of posts I'm going to start wrapping up the evidence I have collected, leading to the selection of a search box for sidescan sonar operations.
In the logs for the Point Reyes Lifeboat Station, at the bottom of each days report is a "Record of the Miscellaneous Events of the Day". Looking at the log for September 30, 1951, it turns out that the lifeboat station was called in to look for Clint when he was trying to swim to shore! The entries here give us some new insight into when things happened that night, and where the various accounts that were reported in the next day's paper came from. Let's take a detailed look at the entries.
At 2150 (9:50 pm) the log says: "Received orders from Control Center to search beach approximately 5 miles North of Point Reyes Light for passenger of plane that was down in that area." Note that they're going to search for the passenger (Clint), not the pilot. I take this as meaning that the pilot (Lt Anderson) has come ashore at Kehoe Ranch, phoned the Navy, and that message has been relayed to the Point Reyes Lifeboat Station. So the location of "5 miles North of Point Reyes Light" that gets reported in the next day's San Francisco Chronicle is coming from the pilot, immediately after getting out of the water, while his memory is fresh. I have always wondered whether the varying accounts that are contained in the newspapers could be due to Clint and Lt Anderson having slightly different interpretations about what happened.
It would be interesting to research what the "Control Center" was (Coast Guard District HQ, perhaps?), and see what's in their logs for the evening. They might have a more detailed take on what happened, as the lifeboat station was probably just provided the information they needed to go out and find Clint.
The timing of this entry is reasonably consistent with our assumptions as to the timing of the ditching. In the Chronicle article, Lt Anderson comes ashore at Kehoe Ranch, and at 9:25pm calls the operations office at the Alameda Naval Air Station to report the ditching. This aligns well with the lifeboat station being alerted at 9:50pm, as there would have to be a message relayed from the Naval Air Station to the Coast Guard, and from there to the lifeboat station.
At 2200 the log says: "Departed station in T-11600 for area 5 miles North of Light House."
At 2250 the log says: "Started search for missing passenger from KEHOE RANCH South." Kehoe Beach / Kehoe Ranch is about 10 miles north of the lighthouse. So I think sometime between 2200 and 2250 the lifeboat station got updated information on the ditching. While it may have been reported as happening 5 miles north of the lighthouse, they now know that Lt Anderson came ashore near Kehoe Ranch, farther north. So it would make perfect sense to start in the Kehoe Ranch area and work south back to the presumed location of the ditching.
At 2345 the log says: "Contacted Pilot of Plane and continued search." It sounds like they haven't found Clint over the preceding hour, so they radioed back to base to get Lt Anderson on the phone for more details.
At 2355 the log says: "Contacted missing passenger. Discontinued search" Presumably the Coast Guard has now been notified that Clint has come ashore and made it to the RCA radio station, and thus the search can be called off.
So what to make of all this? Given how well it matches with the lifeboat station logs, I'm impressed with the article that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle the next day. This article had one detail that is not in the lifeboat station logs- that the ditching was "two to three miles offshore".
It would be really interesting to find the logs of whatever unit (the "Control Center") did dispatching for the lifeboat station, or perhaps the operations logs for the Naval Air Station Alameda. They might have some additional nuggets of information. But I think a pretty clear picture of what happened that evening is starting to emerge.
In searching for the weather records for Point Reyes on the evening of 30 September 1951, there was one avenue I hadn't covered until now- the records of the lighthouse itself. All lighthouses keep logs, and it's not hard to imagine that those logs would contain weather observations. After some brief web searches, I found this page at the National Archives that suggests that lighthouse records are indeed in the national archives- in this case, for 1951, as Record Group 26 Entry (A-1) 330.
I contacted the archives, in order to enquire as to whether the lighthouse logs contained weather information. If they did, I figured I would collar a friend in the Washington area to go to there and make the necessary copies.
Kim McKeithan from the National Archives (or more properly, the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, or NARA) wrote back to me saying that they had records for the Point Reyes Lifeboat Station from the proper time period. Interesting- I hadn't thought of the lifeboat station, though it's only a couple of miles from the lighthouse, and so would be seeing the same weather. Even better, since the relevant log entries were only a couple of pages long, she sent me a courtesy pdf file of the entries. Fabulous!
It turns out that the logs for the lifeboat station gave me more information than I was expecting. Here's a snip from the weather entries on Sunday, 30 September 1951- the day of the crash. Earlier in the investigation we had estimated the time of the ditching about 6:30 pm. Looking at the log, we see winds from the southwest rotating to the south as the evening progressed into night, and the strength building from Beaufort 2 (4-6 knots) to Beaufort 5 (17-21 knots).
While a 4-6 knot wind won't push a lifeboat very fast, a 17-21 knot wind certainly will! It's truly unfortunate that there was not a 10pm weather observation to bracket the 8pm and midnite ones, but this is still great information to have- actual weather observations, not forecasts.
And there was some bonus information in the logs as well- I'll cover that in the next post.
The first step to identifying the target was to find out exactly how far behind the boat the sonar towfish was. While I have marks on the towfish cable to see how much cable is payed out, to get an exact measurement we just did a 180-degree turn with the boat, and ran a new sonar line on an exact reciprocal course to our original one. The same sonar target popped up, but at a new position- the GPS reading of the target will shift in distance exactly twice the distance from the boat to the towfish. If you take the midpoint of the two sonar hits, you now know exactly where along the original sonar line your target actually lays.
At that point we ran a new line perpendicular to the original one. The purpose of this is to see the target from a different angle, and to verify how far the target lays laterally to the original sonar line. When we did this, we came up with a stunning sonar image that was unmistakenly that of an airplane- see the photo below. With about a half hour left before we had to head to the dock, it was time to verify the contact. The weather was calm, so there was no problem holding the boat directly over the location of the target. We booted up our Trident ROV, tossed it in the water, and about five minutes later were looking at a picture of a sunken airplane, laying inverted as it rested on the bottom of Lake Tahoe.
This was a great moment for a couple of reasons. First, there is an enormous sense of satisfaction in being the first to lay your eyes on something that has been missing and hidden for many years. But more importantly here, it verified that the equipment we had, and the techniques we were using, should be able to handle the search for Clint's long-sunken Skyraider wreck.
Nearing the end of our second day of searching for the LA4, we had covered the entire search area that we had drawn up, and had been over much of the area twice-- all without seeing anything resembling an airplane. With about an hour to go before we had to head back to the ramp, we reviewed the original assumptions that went into our selection of a search area. There seemed to be only two possibilities- either the wreck had been salvaged (though no local people remembered that happening), or that the eyewitness accounts of the sinking did not accurately describe its location. The only option that made sense was to shift our search area eastward, hypothesizing that the eyewitnesses either didn't remember well, or didn't describe well, the bearing from the shore to the sinking aircraft.
About a hundred yards to the east of the edge of our original search area, we finally got a good hit on the sonar, shown below. Now the race was on to identify the target, and get back to the boat ramp before it closed for the evening.
After picking an appropriate search area for the sunken LA4, for two days last fall we swept the area, using John's boat and my sidescan, looking at miles of largely featureless bottom. During a search the helmsman (John in this case) tries to follow a path across the lake which is at a constant depth, and at a constant speed. This keeps the towfish at more-or-less a constant height above the lakebed, which gives the best sonar data. With each new pass you move slightly to the side of the previous pass, and adjust either the boat speed or the amount of cable laid out (called the layback) to adjust for the lakebed depth of the new pass. In this case we were using the sidescan set to a range of 100 meters (to both the left and the right), with each pass moving laterally by about 100 meters. This allows most lakebed regions to be covered twice during the search process.
There's hours of boredom during a search like this, but each sonar line has to be precisely helmed, or there will be questions as to whether the search area has indeed been properly covered.
This last fall we did some sonar work in Lake Tahoe to refine our skills and check the feasibility of finding Clint's plane with the sidescan that I have.
In August of 1982 a Lake LA4 amphibian aircraft (similar to the one pictured below) sank in Lake Tahoe. Apparently a seam opened up in the hull after a hard landing, and the pilot was far enough from shore that beaching the airplane wasn't a possibility. So the pilot and passengers got out on the wing of the airplane and waited rescue, and the airplane itself later sank to the bottom. You can find some details about the accident in NTSB accident report #LAX82DA299.
So my friend John Clauss knew of the incident, and knew about where it happened. It was in the north part of Lake Tahoe, where the water is shallow enough (< 100 meters or so) that we should be able to see it on my sidescan sonar.
The bottom of Lake Tahoe is very smooth, so search conditions in this case are much better than what we expect for finding the Skyraider. But this is balanced somewhat by the fact that the LA4 is smaller than the Skyraider, with a wingspan of 38 feet compared to the 50 feet of the AD-1.
With the San Francisco Examiner now available in digital form, it was easy to search for other references about the ditching. It turns out Clint must have talked to some newspaper reporters the day after the ditching, because the Examiner had a small article about the incident in the October 2 newspaper, in addition to the main article on October 1. The October 2 article just provides some local color, with Clint noting about how he was tossed out of his raft multiple times.
I think this is the main explanation as to the reason why Clint and Lt Anderson landed at such different spots- I'm guessing that Lt Anderson didn't get tossed out, and didn't have to swim. A person in a raft is going to be greatly affected by the wind, while a person swimming is not, and will only be affected by the current.
So finding archival winds data has turned out to be quite a challenge. There's probably some data out there in paper form- lighthouse logs, weather station logs, that sort of thing. But I can't seem to find anything that's been digitized and put on the web. So, until I can dig into some archives, I'll have to go back to the newspaper archives, and look to see what the weather forecasts for that day (September 30, 1951) were.
Originally I had planned on heading back to the microfilm at the San Francisco library, but before doing so I took a quick look at newspapers.com. When I started this project the newspapers.com archives didn't have any of the major San Francisco newspapers, but in the last year they've added the San Francisco Examiner to their database. September 30, 1951 was a Sunday, and the Sunday examiner had a pretty good weather forecast section.
So the local forecast is shown below, and sure enough, the forecast was for winds from the south to the west at 12 to 25 miles per hour. This is very unusual for the area, and is a nice little nugget- it can go a long way to explaining the reference in the Schickel biography that Clint was drifting northward after the ditching.
While tidal data seems to suggest that the current was running southward at the time of the ditching, other sources disagree. As Rupert Clayton noted in a comment to my 27 September 2017 post below, in the Schickel biography of Clint ("Clint Eastwood - A Biography" by Richard Schickel, p. 53), the current is said to be running northward. I can only presume that this detail came from interviews with Clint himself. Does he remember this correctly after all these years? There's also the issue of winds- although the winds in this area are generally from the north, they do occasionally shift around and blow from the south. Could this have been one of those occasions? I need to find more historical weather data for the area.
So it's been a while since I've posted on this project- work, search for a suitable boat, and a couple of other projects have kept me away. But I've got the other projects mostly squared away, there are some leads on suitable boats, and so it's time to finish up the research on this project and get ready for the field work.
The biggest research challenge left is to narrow down the size of the search box for the Skyraider. The diagram shown shows the challenge involved. My sidescan sonar unit can cover about a square mile of ocean per day. Did the aircraft ditch to the north of, or to the south of the locations of the beach landings? To cover the entire space of possible locations for the aircraft would entail weeks of work- even if I had the time available, the weather is never going to cooperate like that. So we'll have to look at every bit of available information to help to narrow down the most-probably area for searching.
Here's a sonar plot of the mystery ship off Angel Island, taken on a track parallel to, and almost directly overtop of the hull. The sonar towfish is about twenty meters above the wreck.
Late in April we had a chance to go out on our friend Drew Gray's Ranger Tug 31, to see how well it would work as a tow platform for sidescan work. We stayed in the San Francisco Bay, imaging a shipwreck off the east side of Angel Island. This wreck was the subject of this project on OpenExplorer.
It was a fun day on the water, we got some good sonar images of the ship, and actually managed to get a Trident ROV on the wreck during a period of slack tide.
Photos by Jim Trezzo.
Here's the sidescan sonar that we'll be using to locate the sunken plane, if we're not successful in locating it in the public multibeam data.
This is a DeepVision DE680. Made in Sweden, it's a pretty capable unit that sells at a reasonable price. It operates at 680 kHz, which is a good frequency for finding things like cars and airplanes underwater- that is, the tradeoff between range and beamwidth (resolution) is appropriate. As long as the airplane isn't in a crazy field of boulders, this sidescan should have enough resolution to pick it out. Set up with a tow speed of 3 knots, and using a 50% overlap, we can cover about a square mile per day of searching. So, unless we want to spend weeks covering the site, we'll need to make some pretty good guesses as to where the plane came to rest.
There are better sidescans out there- Klein and EdgeTech make really excellent units- but they come with pricetags of $40,000 and up, which I can't afford.
So the question I most frequently get asked is "Are you going to use a Trident ROV to look for the plane?" The folks who are asking know that I do a lot of work for OpenROV, and we're pretty bullish on the abilities of our new Trident ROV. But the short answer is, well, no.
Remotely-Operated Vehicles (ROVs) are great observation tools. But they're really not very good search tools, unless your target happens to be in a very confined area, and the visibility is good. In this case, our search area is likely to be a several square miles. Even if visibility was exceptional, it would take ages to search the necessary area.
The first tool tool that we're going to use is multibeam sonar. Much of coastal California has already been surveyed with multibeam, and the results are publically available. We'll start by looking at this data, looking for anomalies that are worth checking out.
But, depending upon the type of terrain surrounding Eastwood's sunken plane, the public multibeam data probably won't have enough resolution to spot the wreckage. So we'll turn to sidescan sonar, which for years has been the principal search tool for finding wreckage underwater.
Lately, high profile activities, such as the search for Maylasia Airlines Flight 370, have been done using sidescan sonars mounted on autonomous platforms (autonomous underwater vehicles or AUVs). It would be nice to have something like that, but we don't. So we're going to use a classic towed sonar, with the tow boat "mowing the lawn" in a well-defined search pattern.
Any anomalies we find will need to be identified- and that's where the ROV comes in.
Okay, so the winter didn't exactly work out the way I had intended. Work on getting the OpenROV Trident vehicle into production turned into a crisis, the boat we were hoping to use to look for the Skyraider ended up with some major maintenance issues, and a handful of life issues also intervened. Net result- a six month hiatus from new posts to the expedition.
I did manage to get some new archival work done over the winter, and I've got a lot of material stacked up to post. But the real shame was missing some good weekends for doing sonar work off of Point Reyes.
Calm water in the target area is a rarity, and when it does happen it's typically in the wintertime. There were a couple instances over the winter when we had essentially perfect conditions for starting a sonar search, but we couldn't take advantage of the situation. Such is life sometimes, I suppose.
So for now, it's time to start posting more archival work, make up detailed plans of where we want to search, and wait for some good weather opportunities to start looking.
So now that we have a model for predicting historical surface currents around Point Reyes, and we have an estimated time for the ditching, what does our model tell us?
We take the estimated ditching time of 6:25pm, and add 2 hours and 15 minutes to get the time (8:40pm) that we will use on the September 21 2017 surface current charts.
Posted here are the surface currents for 9pm around Pt Reyes. As was earlier guessed, the current flow is pretty much all south. If coupled with a wind generally from the north, then the ditching spot of the plane will be well to the north of the landing spots for Lt Anderson and Private Eastwood.
As stated earlier, I'm not sure how accurate this hindcasting of surface currents is. Perhaps its totally meaningless. But the general flow around Point Reyes is southward, so to me this just verifies that we're not dealing with some weird spot in the tidal cycle where the currents reverse and the flow along the coastline is northward.
So what time was it when Lt Anderson ditched his Skyraider? One would think it would be easy to pin down such a basic fact, but that's not the case.
The Navy's accident report lists the time of the accident as "1825U". I'm not familiar with the use of the letter U for times (as opposed to the letter Z for "Zulu time" or UTC), but it seems reasonable to assume that this is local time- 6:25pm.
The article in the Independent Journal says that the operator at the RCA radio station encountered Private Eastwood at about 6 pm. That would put the time of the ditching as likely before 5 pm, as Pvt Eastwood is recorded as having struggled in the water for some period of time before making landfall near the RCA transmitter.
The article in the Chronicle says that a radio message was picked up from the Skyraider at 6pm, when they were still some ways off of the Pt Reyes coastline. It then goes on to say that Lt Anderson called in from a ranch-house phone at 9:25pm.
In this case I'm inclined to believe the Navy report and the Chronicle article, since they are consistent with one another. We'll assume that Lt Anderson ditched his Skyraider at 6:25, and examine the predicted surface currents around Point Reyes for the next couple of hours after that.
While NOAA does not have on-line tidal data dating back to 1951, they do have a Tidal Prediction Site, based upon harmonic coordinates that have been carefully measured at certain stations........and it turns out that the southern tip of Point Reyes is one of those stations. Station #9415020, to be precise.
So I can hindcast the tides for the times around the evening of 30 September 1951, and then try to find a modern date that is a reasonable match to the tidal cycle, for which there will be surface current measurements. I'm not sure how scientifically accurate this process is, especially since I don't know how surface currents might be affected by the local winds and weather, but it's probably the best I'm going to be able to do.
Finding a reasonable match for the tidal cycle turned out to be pretty easy. The tides on the evening of 21 September 2017 are a pretty close match to those of 30 September 1951, with the 2017 tides occurring about 2 hours and 15 minutes later. I've attached plots of the tidal cycle from 29 September - 1 October 1951, compared to the tides of 20 September - 22 September 2017.
Even once we've figured out where Lt Anderson and Private Eastwood came ashore, to make a good guess as to where the aircraft is we'll have to know what the surface currents were. Present-day surface currents along the California coast can be seen on this site, with a spatial resolution of 2 km and a temporal resolution of 1 hour. If you check the area off of Point Reyes, the typical surface currents run north to south, although at points in the tidal cycle this can reverse to a south-to-north flow.
To get the best estimate I'll need to find precisely where things were in the tidal cycle on the evening of 30 September 1951. Some historical tidal information is available on-line, but I haven't been able to find historical San Francisco tidal tables. Looks like another trip to the San Francisco Library is in order.
The attached images show the extremes of surface-current flow during the tidal cycle.
The article in the Chronicle had similar information, but not the same. Was this a case of two reporters giving different interpretations of the same information, or did the two reporters have different sources?
In this article, the plane was ditched two to three miles offshore, but five miles north of Point Reyes.
A few days ago I went to the San Francisco Public Library to check out what the two main San Francisco papers, the Chronicle and the Examiner, had to say about the ditching. It turns out that they had some useful tidbits of information, some of it contradicting other material that I've already gathered. So it goes with historical research. Here is the article from the San Francisco Examiner.
According to the article, the plane ditched "five miles off Point Reyes", the pilot Lt Anderson came ashore 12 miles north of the Point Reyes lighthouse, and Private Eastwood came ashore five miles south of Lt Anderson.
According to the article in the Independent Journal, Private Eastwood wandered into the RCA radio station after coming ashore. This landmark is easy to find, as it's still around- they're referring to Radio Station KPH, which was located in a famous art-deco building from 1929 until its closure in the late 1990's. The building has been preserved and is part of the Point Reyes National Seashore. You can read about its history here and here.
The radio station KPH building is located about 3/4 of a mile south of Abbott's Lagoon, well back from the beach. As was indicated on Mike Warner's Flickr site, Eastwood probably came ashore at the beach immediately to the southwest of the lagoon.
So my "go-to" source for aviation archival work is Craig Fuller at AAir. I dropped him a line to see what information he had available about the ditching. A couple of days later I got a dropbox link with scans of some photos, Navy reports, and the same newspaper front page (The Independent Journal, San Rafael, CA, 1 Oct 1951) that was on Mike Warner's site that I linked below. I suspect that Craig was the original source of the archival information.
The accident report runs several pages, but the relevant stuff is on the second page, regarding the details of approaching the Pt Reyes coast and the subsequent ditching. The newspaper is even better, with details of where the pilot, Lt JG Francis Anderson, and the passenger, Army Private Clint Eastwood, came ashore. I'll have to round up some detailed maps of the Point Reyes area to see where Kohoe Ranch, Pierce Point, and the RCA Radio Station are (or were- these are details from 66 years ago!)
Quick searches of the internet don't reveal a lot of information about the ditching. There are a lot of articles where Mr. Eastwood recalls the incident to a reporter, such as here and here. These are interesting for context, but they don't provide much in the way of solid information upon which to base a search. The Wikipedia article for Clint Eastwood mentions the incident briefly, with three footnotes. But those footnotes lead to biographies, not to contemporaneous source documentation. The biographies might have footnotes that point to the original material, but it's going to take some legwork to track that down.
A careful look at the Wikipedia page shows that there's a separate article for his early life, and this article has much more detail on the ditching, including the date, with a new set of footnotes. Peering into the footnotes, we see that one of those is the Navy's accident report for the incident. Now here's some material we can use. There's a local newspaper account as well, from the day after the ditching. The copies on the website are a bit fuzzy but can be read in a pinch. I'll try to round up some better copies.
Now we've got a starting point for researching this thing.
After hanging up the phone with Russ, my thoughts immediately drifted to whether we at OpenROV could find the ditched aircraft. Step one, pull open the chart for the area. The NOAA charts for Point Reyes are 18643 and 18647. Looking at these, the bottom looks to be relatively flat and not too deep- three miles off of Point Reyes the depth is around 60m (200'). That's a depth we can get to with our sonar and our ROVs, and a smooth bottom will improve the visibility of targets in the sonar data.
This whole adventure started at the end of July. Here at OpenROV we were looking for some interesting sites on which to test our new Trident ROV. We've been doing a lot of work in Monterey Bay and San Francisco Bay, and it was time to step up the intensity of the testing. We started looking for interesting targets around the Farallon Islands, which are about 30 miles off of San Francisco Bay. One idea that came up was to survey the wreck of the USS Conestoga.
The story of USS Conestoga is an interesting one. In 1921 she left the San Francisco area for Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, but was never heard from again. The fate of the ship was unknown until very recently- her wreckage was picked up in a 2009 NOAA multibeam survey of the area around the Farallons, and then was identified with two ROV surveys in 2014 and 2015. In looking over the online documentation from the 2015 survey, I noticed that one of the participants was a friend of mine, filmmaker and aircraft historian Russ Matthews. I decided to call him to get some background information on the conditions surrounding the wreck of the Conestoga.
It turns out that there were a number of interesting targets seen in the multibeam data, and NOAA was trying to identify some of these. One of the targets they hoped to identify (but did not) was what might be the remains of a Navy Skyraider that had ditched off of Point Reyes in 1951. This naturally got my attention, as aviation history is an interest of mine. Russ mentioned that one of the crew members from the ditching is still alive, and that further got my attention- it's great to have the ability to connect the past to the present, through the eyes of the person who was actually right there. Then Russ mentioned that the crewmember's name was Clint Eastwood.
Archaeology isn't about rock piles and weathered timbers and twisted aluminum, its about the human stories that those objects tell. This particular story just got way more interesting.
On 30 September 1951, two Navy AD-1 Skyraiders left NAS Seattle in Washington for a routine flight to Mather Field in Sacramento, California. One of those aircraft had radio problems, got separated from the other in bad weather, and then got lost. While the pilot eventually managed to break into clear weather, he ran out of fuel while flying down the California coast north of San Francisco.
The pilot made a successful ditching, and he and the one army passenger got into life rafts and paddled to shore. Maneuvering through the rough shore break was not so routine, and the passenger nearly drowned in the process.
Most incidents of this type tend to get lost in the sands of time. The pilot of the unfortunate flight died a number of years later. The passenger however, is still alive. He left the army and has gone on to have a long career as a movie actor and director. That man's name is Clint Eastwood.
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