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Sun, Jul 17, 2005

Search For Airliner, Lost in 1950, Finds... Shipwrecks

Northwest Flight 2501 Will Keep Its Secrets For Now

By Aero-News Senior Correspondent Kevin R.C. "Hognose" O'Brien

The sea does not give up her dead casually; and neither do the freshwater inland seas, the Great Lakes that define much of the north central US and southern Canada. So when Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates (MSRA) decided to take on the case of Northwest Flight 2501, a Douglas DC-4 lost in 1950 with 55 passengers, two pilots, and a stewardess over vast Lake Michigan, they knew it was going to be hard. They didn't know how hard -- or that they'd wind up solving other, even older mysteries, while chasing Flight 2501.

The Flight

In 1950, long-range air travel was almost unimaginably different from today. The poor and middle-class rode trains; flying was for the well-to-do, the busy, the family in a hurry. Northwest Airlines Flight 2501 carried 27 women, 22 men and six children on the night of June 23, 1950. The captain was Robert C. Lind, the co-pilot Verne F. Wolfe, and the only stewardess Bonnie Ann Feldman.

Flight 2501 was a coast-to-coast overnight trip from New York to Seattle, with a stop midway, at Minneapolis. Unlike today's airliners, the unpressurized DC-4 would travel at low altitudes -- 2501 was flight-planned at 6,000 feet, although it flew lower. The passengers were seated in comfortable, roomy seats, and to some extent pampered. And every seat had an ashtray in the armrest -- almost everybody smoked in those days.

In the early 1950s, the airlines managed their own air traffic. At 11:51 PM Eastern Time, Flight 2501 reported over Battle Creek, Michigan at 3,500 feet. His ETA in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on the west side of the lake was 46 minutes later. He made only one more transmission, requesting a lower altitude (2,500) due to weather; that request was denied.

No voice from flight 2501 was ever heard again.

The Loss

When NWA 2501 didn't make its ETA in Milwaukee, Northwest Radio and Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) stations tried to raise the aircraft with no luck. Soon, search and rescue forces were called out; at 0530 Milwaukee time, the airplane would have exhausted its maximum fuel and could no longer be in the air -- even theoretically. The Coast Guard and state and local forces started looking in the most likely place --Lake Michigan.

There had been other air traffic over the lake that night, none of which had seen the ill-fated liner, but everybody over Lake Michigan was dodging thunderstorms. Had the DC-4 hit one? Was it in the lake?

By 6:30 that evening, the Coast Guard had evidence it was: the cutter Woodbine found an oil slick, and aircraft debris, miles from any shore. In the airline debris was a logbook from Northwest Airlines. No survivors were found, but over the next two weeks the lake yielded up human body parts and some small aircraft parts or passengers' effects. For several days, until the July 4 weekend, local beaches were closed, protecting bathers from grisly discoveries. But none of the debris provided a solid clue to the loss of the machine.

There were no survivors. At that time, the loss of 58 human lives was the greatest single casualty toll in the history of civil aviation.

The Coast Guard and Navy located wreckage by sonar, but didn't dive to it -- judging from the fragmentation of the items they found, they doubted there was much on the lakebed that would answer any investigative questions.

And so the questions remained open. Did the plane (file photo  of type, below) overstress in the storm? Did it suffer a mechanical failure, like a runaway prop, common in those days? Was it destroyed by a fuel-air explosion... or by an explosion of more sinister nature? (In 1955, Jack Graham would put a bomb on an airliner in order to collect insurance on his mother. He was executed for the crime in 1957. Was he not the first?).

The Search

MSRA, based in Holland, Michigan, with lots of underwater search experience, is a powerful ally in the National Underwater and Marine Agency. It's a treasure-hunting, mystery-busting private organization run by famous adventure writer Clive Cussler and his son Dirk (you have to love an author who names his protagonist in his books after his son). They had a pretty good idea of where NWA 2501 was, based on 1950 reports from the Coast Guard and the Navy.

The MSRA searched the lake bottom -- 200 square miles of it -- in May, June and early July, using sophisticated side-scan sonar, which can produce photographic-like greyscale images. The searchers looked at a lot of bland bottom mud.

"It can be incredibly frustrating," MSRA member Jack van Heest told the Detroit Free Press. "You spend thousands of hours of effort, on the water and doing research. Then you find something and you think, 'What is that?"'

The Results

The searchers kept finding ships, not planes. In May, the team found a piece of a once-celebrated lake rail ferry, the Ann Arbor No. 5. The ferry had been retired to service as a barge when it sank -- or possibly, was sunk deliberately -- about 10 miles off of South Haven, Michigan. Another barge -- name unknown -- was found about ten miles from Holland harbor.

The team's biggest find came on June 11. The S.S. Michigan, long sought by the team and other lake shipwreck historians, was a 204-foot-long, iron-hulled passenger ship. In 1885, she ventured out with a volunteer crew to rescue another ship caught in ice, only to become trapped herself. The captain and crew hoped to break free but instead the ice damaged the ship, and they abandoned her -- she sank on March 19, 1885, in 270 feet of water west of Holland, Michigan, with no loss of life. The ship was in remarkable condition for such an old shipwreck, sitting upright on the lakebed with much of the superstructure collapsed into a basically intact hull. Divers were able to photograph the bell, capstan, and double ship's wheel.

The group has scanned more than 200 square miles of lake bottom.

In the end, they found no sign of the missing DC-4 in the muddy bottom. But MSRA and NUMA haven't given up. Perhaps the airframe was badly fragmented, but somewhere on the lakebed lie four P&W R-2000 radials.  "If there is major wreckage on the lake bottom, it is likely to be the four massive Pratt & Whitney R2000 engines," the team writes on their website. "These 14-cylinder, air-cooled behemoths were 59.66 inches long, 49.1 inches in diameter and weighed nearly 1,600 pounds each."

MSRA and NUMA didn't extract the airplane's secrets from Lake Michigan yet, but they haven't given up. The lake will yield its secrets up...

...When it's good and ready.

FMI: www.michiganshipwrecks.org

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