The Loss of the Douglas C-54-D in 1950 January 11, 2013Posted by Beachcombing in : Contemporary , trackback
Scores of planes have permanently gone missing since the beginnings of aviation a century ago, but almost all of these have one thing in common. They were flying over deep water or they were close to deep water when they disappeared from the radar. It makes sense: it is very difficult for a large plane to come down on land, even in the wilderness and not be found by determined searchers. This is what makes the disappearance of the Douglas C-54-D in 1950 so mysterious.
The Douglas in question was flying, 26 Jan, from Alaska to Texas (via Montana) with forty-four souls on board. The plane could have crossed into the Pacific with bad weather, but its last signal to the ground came at 15.09 when the pilot reported that it was flying over Snag, a village in the Yukon (Canada) a long way inland. The search and rescue mission that came afterwards operated in the Yukon or the badlands of northern British Columbia.
The Douglas C-54 was the classic American military transport of that period. It was almost one hundred feet long and over seventeen metric tonnes. This was not a tiny plane like the L’Oiseau Blanc lost in 1927, made, in large part, of canvas and plywood. If you came upon the C-54’s grave today or, for that matter, in a thousand years the chances are that you would notice.
And this brings us back to the question of how a plane of this size can go missing. The US military got as many as eighty-five planes – American and Canadian – in the air for Operation Mike, the search and followed up information from witnesses on the ground. But nothing came of these. 20 February, three and a half weeks later, the search was abandoned. It had taken place in horrendous weather conditions and two planes had been wrecked in the search.
To be fair to the US military Operation Mike was carried out over some of the wildest lands in the continent. If a plane comes down in a desert it can be spotted, but in the forests of the Pacific North-west a seventeen tonne plane can play at needle in a pine haystack. Still sixty years have passed… Is it perhaps, as some have suggested, in a lake. The pilot may have landed the plane on an iced over body of water and whoever survived then died in the cold that followed. The plane would have disappeared into the water once spring came.
If you lose a family member in a plane somewhere over the Pacific there is a part of you that can pretend that they might have made it to an island where they are presently raising children with a beautiful Italian air hostess. There is no such consolation for the family members of the C-54.
Any other planes disappearing over land: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
12/1/2013: Nathaniel writes ‘The disappearance of Congressman Hale Boggs was big news, and remains unsolved. Of course it was a small plane and Alaska is a big place: The below was initially a disappearance, but the crash site was discovered after a year. Again, a small plane and a big place (slightly better traveled): Note that the crash site was outside of the search area, and if a hiker had not found it might have remained unknown. John G writes: The aircraft in the 1972 Andes aircrash (Alive) was a similar size to the Douglas C-54-D and probably had a smaller “viable” search area but the searchers never saw it, it was only when two of the survivors made it to a human settlement that the others were rescued. PJ writes: ‘This story rather reminds me of the British South American Airlines (BSAA) Star Dust accident of 1947. It disappeared in the Argentine Andes on a flight from Buenos Aires to Santiago, Chile and not a trace of it was ever spotted. That is, until the pieces of the plane and bodies started to emerge from the glacier on Mount Tupungato in the 1990s. As the glacier progressed down the mountain the wreckage moved with it and the subsequent melting revealed things. I have no idea if the Douglas C-54-D was near a glacier, but it probably disappeared through some other natural, perhaps similar, process. Slim comfort, as you say, to those who lost someone on the flight. Not sure this is a relevant response, but I’ve been fascinated by the Star Dust incident for years. Bruce gives this detail: A Trans-Canada Airlines Lockheed Lodestar with 15 people on board vanished on April 28, 1947 while flying from Lethbridge, Alberta to Vancouver. Despite being within 10 miles of its destination it wasn’t found until 1994. Marvin quotes Missing Aircraft Appeal: Missing Aircraft Appeal is posted in an effort to focus renewed attention on two important unresolved cases involving United States Military aircraft that have disappeared in the last century. The purpose of this letter and suggestion, albeit out of the ordinary, is to request a renewed search effort concerning a missing U.S. Navy C-47 Aircraft, BUNR 17254, which is presumed to have crashed and was lost on August 4, 1969 in Chile, South America. It has Never been located. The loss of this aircraft is an unsolved mystery even to this day. This incident hardly received any newsworthy attention in 1969 and during the subsequent years that passed. There are very few archived news releases about this incident which has practically become a forgotten occurrence. It is something that I have often wondered about over the years that have passed, because at the time of the disappearance I was a young dependent child of a U.S. Air Force service member stationed in Chile. U.S. Military investigative documentation regarding the disappearance of the U.S. Navy C-47 is available at the following webpage for the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps, JAG Manual Investigations: Once at this webpage you can access the rather lengthy investigative documentation by clicking on “Download” for the following description: 1969 04 AUG MISSING AIRCRAFT BUNO 17254 According to the investigative report, the U.S. Navy aircraft was on a scheduled maintenance flight to Buenos Aires, Argentina and on board were 16 passengers comprised of U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force service members along with several spouses. Radio contact with the U.S. Navy aircraft was lost after the aircraft was approximately 27 miles south of the capital city of Santiago (some 20 minutes after departure) somewhere between Rancagua, Chile and Angostura, Chile according to the report findings. The flight path appears initially to have been one that flew along the Chilean side of the Andes mountain range until it was to reach a more southern point at Curico, Chile and then take a flight path East through an approved mountain pass through the Andes mountains towards Buenos Aires. The lost radio contact happened at least 15 minutes before the aircraft was even scheduled to reach the southern beacon point at Curico, Chile to access the southern mountain pass. The August timeframe is during the winter season in Chile and Argentina (essentially the reverse of our seasons here in the U.S.) and the weather conditions were apparently very poor. Although a somewhat intensive search was conducted at the time by Chilean military and civilian personnel along with some American military aircraft support, severe weather was a factor and the search ended on August 14, 1969. References were made to continuing the search later during their warmer season but I have not been able to confirm that this ever really took place. This unresolved and mysterious tragedy was overshadowed and subsequently forgotten due in part to the extreme weather conditions at the time and quite possibly because on July 24, 1969 the Apollo 11 Astronauts had just returned from the first successful moon landing. As I mentioned earlier, this incident strikes a personal note for me because at the time my father was in the U.S Air Force stationed in Chile along with my mother and siblings and we knew some of those on board. This tragedy is also one which has never really had closure for the surviving family members (especially the dependent children given the time that has elapsed). Realistically, I understand that the chances are remote that any evidence of wreckage will ever be located, but then again, technology has advanced since then, and there is always a chance that a renewed search might turn up something. Surely, high resolution satellite imagery and digital analysis could play a big part in discovering the wreckage of the aircraft. In order for there to be any attention given to this unsolved tragedy, it needs to be brought to the attention of our government, the Chilean government and anyone else that might have expertise in finding and recovering lost and missing aircraft. My hope is that this lost aircraft mystery is of interest to you and that you might consider helping with a renewed effort to help locate the wreckage. I believe what prompted me to finally express this request is my having come across a blog site addressing aircraft crashes. On this Blog site there are posts from at least two individuals whose parents were passengers on the ill-fated aircraft. They are still hoping that the wreckage site will be found one day. Sincerely, Bradley G. Burris.’ As to Operation Mike itself Bast sent this in: Some great links here: some great links here: From there, I found this facebook page for operation Mike: They’re apparently trying to reopen the search. KR has more of the same: Here is a link from a family member of one of the victims who still hopes the plane might be found. and an obituary from one of the missing. A 22 year old Sioux serving his country. Here, meanwhile, is the military report KR has also found a site with photos of downed planes in the Yukon or Alaskan wilderness. Thanks KR, Bast, Marvin Bruce, Nathaniel, PJ and John.
22 Jan 2013: CJE writes in: As a resident of the Chicago area, and a descendant of Lake Michigan area pioneers, I have long been fascinated by a major aviation crash that has never been explained. Northwest Flight # 2501, disappeared on Friday June 23, 1950. While an oil slick, and some wreckage was found, No significant traces of the aircraft, much less a reason to crash, have never been determined. The plane was a Douglas DC-4, which had taken off from LaGuardia Airport, in New York City, on a routine scheduled flight to Seattle Washington, with stops at Minneapolis, and Spokane. A crew of three, pilot, co-pilot, and stewardess, were in charge of fifty-five passengers, men, woman, and children. Air traffic control maintained contact with the aircraft with radar tracking, until a time at which the aircraft crossed over Lake Michigan. Following some routine instructions, the aircraft had acknowledged air traffic control, and then no further contact could be made. There had been reports of thunderstorms in the area, but no other aircraft had reported them as reaching a level of being severe. Searchers found an oil slick the next morning but other than small pieces of floating trash, no major debris was ever located. Speculation as the the accident ranged from pilot error, instrument failure, to a supposed “Great Lakes Triangle.” A reasonable guess would be that the pilot had endeavored to avoid the storms, and simultaneously descending to avoid other aircraft, he had flown directly into the lake. Over sixty years later no trace of the fuselage, or engines, has ever been found……. Links…… 1, 2, 3. Wikipedia has a segment that claims the bodies had been found and were buried in a secret mass grave. Finally, a link to Wikipedia which covers the “Lake Michigan Triangle.” I never put any stock in this tale but followers do have a way of collecting stories of missing ships, planes, and people. thanks CJE!
29 Jan 2013: Chris Notanyonesdottir writes: Thoroughly enjoy your stories, and the most recent regarding aircraft disappearances brought back an unforgettable childhood memory from the early 1970s. Growing up in Canada, our neighbours were, like my family, British immigrants who came to the country in the 1950s. We would often get together with them on summer nights to share a bonfire under the stars (we lived in the rugged bush country a few hours drive north of Toronto) and often the talk would turn to ghosts, mysteries and the unexplained. At the time I had a copy of Charles Berlitz’ just-released book on the Bermuda Triangle. Being a precocious young lad I began to talk about the ‘Devil’s Triangle’ and the disappearance of the two BSAA aircraft Star Ariel and Star Tiger. Our neighbour was intrigued by the book’s account, but soon said ‘no mystery there, old boy’ (which was what he often called me). When I asked him what he knew, he quietly, and sadly, admitted his brother was Radio Officer Tuck of the Star Tiger! ‘Chills’ all round (and deep sympathy, of course) is the only way to describe our reaction. The Air Ministry had told him that, in all likelihood, bad weather was the true cause, or possibly a sudden and catastrophic structural failure of the aircraft brought about by the flying conditions at the time. While this loss didn’t occur over land, your article brought back the lasting memory of a dark night by the campfire and a single-degree of separation from what has remained an enduring mystery of early transatlantic aviation. Thanks Chris!!