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Sun, Mar 25, 2007

Crews Search Lake Michigan For Signs Of Decades-Old Plane Wreckage

Northwest DC-4 Disappeared In 1950

Fifty-six years is too long for the wreckage of a missing plane to go undiscovered, say underwater search crews and amateur historians who have launched an impressive effort to find the remnants of Northwest Airlines Flight 2501. The DC-4 disappeared over Lake Michigan in June 1950.

"It seems like it's certainly findable," said Ralph Wilbanks, a member of the search team financed by underwater adventure writer Clive Cussler. "It's just a mystery what happened to this plane."

The Chicago Tribune reports crews were due to return to sites identified by sonar and magnetometer sweeps earlier this week as possible locations of wreckage from the plane.

In what was the deadliest US airline accident at the time, 55 passengers and three crew were lost when the airliner, bound for Minneapolis from New York's LaGuardia Airport, disappeared near Benton Harbor, MI on the night of June 23, 1950. The last contact from the plane came when Captain Robert Lind requested a descent from 3,500 feet to 2,500, presumably due to storm activity in the area.

Controllers denied that request due to conflicting traffic... but it's unknown whether Lind heard them. Airline officials discovered the plane was missing when they learned the plane hadn't passed over Milwaukee as planned.

An unprecedented search effort was launched, involving Air Force, Coast Guard and Navy personnel, as well as police from every state that borders Lake Michigan. Keep in mind this was 1950, far before the days of cell phones and rapid response teams.

Many of those personnel headed toward Milwaukee, where witnesses reported seeing a flash in the skies and an oil slick. But the plane had evidently disappeared long before reaching Wisconsin. Despite the misstep, it's unlikely crews could have saved anyone, even if they had responded to the correct location.

Crews searched futility for the missing plane. In the hours following the crash, debris from the missing aircraft began to wash up on the shores 18 miles northwest of Benton Harbor. A fuel tank float, pieces of arm rests, and body parts were recovered over the following days... but the plane was never found. The search was called off within a week, and subsequent hearings failed to arrive at a cause for the crash.

"It is known that the flight entered an area where there was severe turbulence and that it crashed shortly afterward," read the government's final report. "This fact in itself indicates that the accident probably resulted from either a structural failure caused by the turbulence, or because control of the airplane was lost. However, there is no evidence upon which a determination can be made as to which of these two possibilities actually caused the accident."

By the time the government released its report, most of America's attention was focused on the escalating conflict in Korea -- which the US entered one day after the loss of Flight 2501.

It seemed the crash would forever be lost to the pages of history... until Cussler, who had already gained fame for his team's discovery of the wreckage of the ill-fated Confederate submarine Hunley in 1995, read an article by a member of the Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates on the crash.

Members from that organization, along with Cussler's team, began the search anew in 2004, with a follow-up search conducted last May. The combined team found two shipwrecks, but still no sign of the missing DC-4.

"We're finding everything there is to find, but no airplane," said Valerie Olson VanHeest, shipwreck group director and co-founder of the Underwater Archaeological Society of Chicago. The group also located relatives of three people who perished in the crash, and even held a memorial service for them earlier this month.

For the moment, however, the depths of Lake Michigan still hold the secret to the disappearance of Flight 2501. That, combined with the relatively small size of a DC-4, have made the search difficult.

"If it was a 1,000-foot ship, this would be a lot easier," Wilbanks said, noting an intact DC-4 is only 95 feet long -- and it's likely the plane has broken into several smaller pieces. But the search will go on.

"I'd hate to not find this airplane," he said.

FMI: www.michiganshipwrecks.org/dc4.htm

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