The Mystery in the Mon

Image: pittsburgh.about.com

What happened?

At 4:10 PM on January 31st, 1956 a B-25 Mitchell bomber crashed into the Monongahela river (known to locals as “the Mon”) just outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  The entire crew of six made it through the initial impact but only four survived the freezing Mon.  For fourteen days the Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers searched the river for the downed bomber.  No trace of the flight was ever found.  To this day the “Ghost Bomber” crash remains one of Pittsburgh’s most legendary mysteries.

Conspiracy theories regarding the fate of the aircraft were quick to develop.  Some think that the plane was carrying nuclear weapons or nerve gas.  Others believe the flight was ferrying mafia money, a UFO, or even Howard Hughes.  Residents of Pittsburgh still continue to speculate about the fate of the aircraft.

Image: sennex.com

There were plenty of eyewitnesses to the crash and one might think that such a large aircraft would not be hard to recover.  At the crash location the river was only 500-1000 feet wide and 25-35 feet deep.  In comparison, a B-25 bomber is 52 feet long, 17 feet tall and has a wingspan of 67 feet. Its last location above water was well known and several people watched it for the full 15 minutes it took to sink.

Some believe that the Army secretly recovered the plane in the middle of the night in a secret operation, disassembled it, and had it shipped away.  There are even eyewitnesses that claim to have watched the whole thing (one man later admitted making the story up as an excuse for his being out all night).  They also claim they were threatened by men in uniform and told never to speak of the incident.  How do these people account for the 14 day public search?  They say it was nothing but a hoax meant to cover up the real rescue.  Oh, some witnesses claim that they watched a mysterious 7th crew member being pulled from the river.  It is true that the original flight manifest listed 7 crew members when it left its origin from from Las Vegas.  One person was dropped off in Detroit.  The destination of the flight was Olmsted Air Force base in Harrisburg, PA.  The purpose of the flight was to pick up aircraft parts from Olmsted.

Like most conspiracy theories involving the government, their side of the story is somewhat less intriguing than that of the conspiracy theorists.

 …approximately 31 nautical miles east of Greater Pittsburgh Airport, an obvious and unusual decrease in the fuel indication on all tanks was noted.  Approximately 120 gallons were indicated as in the aircraft at this point.  Pittsburgh Center was contacted on UHF Channel 5 and a change in destination to Greater Pittsburgh Airport was requested and received at approximately 1600E…  The aircraft was advised that the weather at Greater Pittsburgh Airport consisted of a 3000′ broken ceiling with 10 miles visibility.  River Radio Beacon, 5 nautical miles east of Greater Pittsburgh Airport, was tuned in on Radio Compass at this time and the aircraft homed in on a heading of approximately 285 degrees.   A few minutes after leaving the New Alexandria vicinity, at approximately 1603E, a large hole in the undercast was sighted and the IFR clearance was canceled. at 1604E.  The aircraft was descended through the hole to maintain more positive visual contact and avoid any possible IFR approach delay.  At this time wing tanks were indicating empty; main tanks were indicating approximately 80 gallons of total fuel remaining.  A large deflection on the radio compass indicator was noted, and close proximity to River Beacon was assumed and reported to Pittsburgh Center.  The aircraft was descended beneath the broken ceiling to approximately 3000′ indicated.  (In this vicinity average terrain level is 1100 to 1200 feet.)  Shortly after descending to VFR conditions, the heavily populated fringes of the city of Pittsburgh were sighted and course was altered to a generally southerly direction to avoid housing areas.  At this time it became evident that fuel was decreasing constantly at an abnormal rate and it was decided to attempt landing at Allegheny County Airport, approximately 15 nautical miles southeast of Greater Pittsburgh Airport.  Shortly thereafter, at approximately 1609E, the Monongahela River was sighted and both engines ceased operating at approximately 3000′ indicated.  Major Dotson (the pilot) advised the crew that the aircraft would be ditched in the river.  Captain Jamieson (the co-pilot) transmitted a “Mayday” which was overheard at the Allegheny County Tower at 1609E on either 126.18Mc or 257.8Mc.  Major Dotson lowered wing flaps and completed a wheels-up touchdown, heading downstream in a generally south, southwest direction at approximately 1610E to 1611E.  The ditching was successful and all occupants evacuated the aircraft with no apparent injuries.

In short, something caused them to run out of fuel.  Their course was altered and the engines shut off short of their new destination forcing them to ditch in the Monongahela river.  You can read the rest of the official report here.

OK, So where is it?

Back in 1995, a local group of businessmen calling themselves The B-25 Recovery Group started a scientific investigation into the story of what really happened on January 31st, 1956 and the days that followed.  They have mapped the bottom of the Mon with side- scanning sonar and gathered information on the ditching from governmental and civilian sources.  The group has interviewed experts on subjects ranging from the design and construction of the B-25 to silt deposition in the Mon.  Through careful investigation they have determined that the bomber accidentally slipped into an open gravel pit under the water and was quietly buried by the river.

Specifically, they believe it is buried approximately 150 feet off the left bank of the Mon, at mile point 4.9 at a place called Bird’s Landing.  Bird’s Landing was once a tie-off point for barges.  It was also known to be a favorite place for “gravel pirates” who dredged the river and sold what they had taken to customers all along the Three Rivers area.  It was this dredging that opened the underwater pit that would eventually be the burial site of the B-25.

Why hasn’t it been raised? 

Money.  Or lack thereof.  It is $25,000 for starters to rent a metal detecting magnetometer and a crew to operate it.  Once the location is confirmed, they would have to take samples of metal taken from the river bottom and analyze them to confirm that any metal found is identical to that used in the Mitchell bombers.  Bob Shema, Operations Director for The B-25 Recovery Group states, “we expect to find the engine blocks, landing gear and tires-they were all made to be bulletproof…but the rest of the plane-doubtful”.

Those of us familiar with the condition of the rivers around the Steel City in the 50’s know that the water quality at that time was poor, at best.  Life expectancy of any metal in the Mon’s polluted water was 1/3 to 1/2 that of the neighboring Allegheny river.  “You couldn’t keep an outboard motor in the water all year – the propeller would be dissolved in no time. All the aluminum [of the plane] is expected to be gone, except what may have come in contact with the bottom,” Shema said.  Locals know that (ironically) you don’t find steel in the Mon.

Why do people still believe the far out stories?

So, if we have a good idea of what happened to the flight and where it is, why do the conspiracy theories still abound?  Well, for one thing, the plane ditched during the height of the cold war.  Everyone was a little bit paranoid.  The Pittsburgh area was surrounded by missile bases.  The idea that our military was stealthy enough to sneak in at night and remove a bomber from the river undetected was somewhat oddly reassuring.

If you really sit down and start to think about the situation all kinds of questions should pop into your head.  “Why would the government put nerve gas or nuclear weapons on an obsolete aircraft that was due to be retired in eighteen months?”.  There were plenty of aircraft more qualified for those kinds of missions by 1956.  The B-25 that crashed was left over from WWII.  It was a National Guard trainer being flown on the last day of month and the pilots were trying to get their monthly hours in.  In the final analysis, they just ran out of gas.

Sources:

Help the search for the B-25…One of Pittsburgh’s historic mysteries, http://sennex.com/b25/

Press Release:  B-25 Group Presents to the University Club, http://sennex.com/b25/062500.htm

Searchers Say ‘Ghost Bomber’ can be found in the Mon, http://old.post-gazette.com/regionstate/19990404bomber4.asp

Report of Air Force Aircraft Accident, Monongahela River, Allegheny County, Homestead, Pennsylvania 1/31/1956, http://caterpillarclub.com/b25/b25.htm

Mystery on the Mon:  Search for the B-25 Bomber, http://pittsburgh.about.com/od/transportation/a/b25_bomber.htm

 

 

About Guy McCardle

Guy McCardle is an American science writer and skeptic. He is a certified Infection Prevention Specialist and served proudly as a Captain in the Army Medical Corps during Operation Iraqi Freedom. A devoted father and husband, he offers his unique viewpoints regarding science and the public interest.
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8 Responses to The Mystery in the Mon

  1. Mud says:

    Thanks! Another warbird story. I like it when You and Brian post on these matters. Must be the age group..aircraft models were a pretty big thing for this old kid!

  2. Please offer your readers the objective version of this story from someone that interviewed the original B-25 crew and local witnesses and folks that pulled souls from the Monongahela River on that fateful day.

  3. Guy McCardle says:

    Mr. Goerman,

    Thanks for your comments. Knowing that you are an expert on this subject, I emailed you for your thoughts while I was writing the piece. Maybe I got the wrong address. I’d really like to hear the stories of the crew.

    Thanks,

    –Guy

  4. Constance Young says:

    I first learned of this from two eyewitnesses and was amazed by the story. The two eyewitnesses were 2 brothers that I worked with on a railroad at Glenwood yard which borders the Mon river at the location of the crash site. The brothers told me that the military did sweep in and without revealing their activities, managed to remove the aircraft from the river. It is amazing to me because the airplane could not have been left in the river and no one was able to find it. It isn’t like the river is a lake or ocean. It is a river and a small one at that. The story is fascinating, and whatever that plane was carrying will never be revealed.

  5. Pat Walton says:

    Hello Mr. McCardle I am a big fan of this incident, I am convinced that the aircraft was removed from the mon river the same day of the crash. I was wondering what your thoughts were on the contents of the plane, I was also curious about the crew. I know that two of the men passed away and four survived, I am very interested in the four survivors and their stories. I am positive that plane was carrying something classified, otherwise they would not have been so anxious to get the aircraft out of the water the very same day. Any info you have, or even any thoughts would be greatly appreciated. I was also wondering if you ever did interview any of the crew, I would love to know if any of them were local or if they were from out of state. Thank you for your time and any help you can offer.

  6. Rick Miller says:

    Pat, just off the top of my head I think the reason they wanted it out as soon as possible was simply the hazard it posed to the barges, ships and pleasure craft of the day. But then what the heck do I know?

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