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Finding the Sikorsky S-38: The Search for H.F. Johnson, Jr.’s Carnaúba Plane Discovers Something More

We all have questions about our parents when they were young…why they made the choices they made, what inspired them, what gave them joy. For Sam Johnson, the fourth-generation leader of SC Johnson, those questions were intertwined with his father’s 1935 expedition to Brazil, and the plane that took him there.
“Do you recall back when you were growing up, there was that special drawer of your father's? And in it was a certain possession of his, maybe a pocket knife or a watch or something that he had found. And somehow it symbolized to you who he was,” says Sam in his film Carnaúba: A Son’s Memoir. “That's really why I wanted to find that data plate on that airplane. So that I could get it, hold it in my hand, take it home and put it in my own special drawer.”
Sam Johnson in Manokwari Bay, Indonesia searching for H.F. Johnson, Jr.’s sunken airplane.
Sam’s search for the original Carnaúba plane took him and his family to Manokwari Bay in Indonesia.

Sam Johnson Wanted to Find a Lost Family Treasure

The Sikorsky S-38 plane H.F. Johnson, Jr. used for his 1935 carnaúba expedition had been missing for decades. After the journey, it was sold to Shell Oil Company, which used it for aerial survey work in New Guinea, Borneo and Indonesia. Research said that in the late 1930s, the plane sank during a takeoff attempt in Manokwari Bay, Indonesia. 
But Sam hoped it might not be lost forever. In 1997, he and his family traveled to Manokwari Bay to mount a search. They used side-scan sonar to identify potential objects deep in the bay, then dove to explore each one. But search as they might, they didn’t find anything that proved to be a sunken Sikorsky S-38. 
Still, it was a wonderful family adventure. As Sam shared with employees at the time, “We uncovered the history of the plane and details about its final flight. We explored a beautiful country and met charming people. Once and for all, we satisfied our curiosity about this chapter of our history.”
Sam would go on to recreate his father’s journey, in a replica Sikorsky S-38, lovingly designed to match every detail of his father’s plane. It was a remarkable experience that brought him closer to his father than ever before. But the location of H.F.’s plane would remain a mystery.

Sam Johnson and crew members searching for HF Johnson, Jr.’s sunken Sikorsky S-38 amphibious plane.
Sam poses with crew members, a camera and the side-scan sonar used in the search.

A New Lead on H.F. Johnson, Jr.'s Missing Plane 

Then in 2005, a year after Sam passed away, a photographer contacted SC Johnson to say that he thought he had seen the plane on a recent dive. He didn’t know the exact location, but he recalled it was in about 100 feet of water.
With that important new piece of information, Chairman and CEO Fisk Johnson and his family had a promising new lead. Fisk, his mom and other family members headed back to Manokwari Bay to try to finish what Sam had started almost 10 years earlier. 
This time, they came upon the plane almost immediately after they began searching, its unique and recognizable shape emerging majestically out of the sand and coral.

Carnaúba Found: The missing Airplane is Discovered

While they didn’t find the data plate Sam had sought, there was no question the Johnsons had found H.F.’s plane.

They placed a granite plaque in front of the sunken treasure that reads: “I am Carnaúba. My true home is not this bay but the hearts of all who love adventure.” It was a beautiful tribute to Sam, and to H.F. as well – the past and the present meeting with the promise of more adventures to come.

As Fisk wrote to employees soon after the successful expedition, "This summer, we found that plane that was so important to my dad. But we discovered much more than just the wreckage of a lost aircraft. After all these years, that plane and the adventure it symbolizes once again brought my family even closer together.

"The call to adventure is a big part of the legacy shared by all of us at SC Johnson. And there are still so many adventures ahead of us if we have the will and the ingenuity to pursue them."