The Airplane That Wasn't There
This is the story of a WWII-era bomber that disappeared in broad daylight, during peacetime, with plenty of witnesses. Something like an ultimate magician's trick. It was 1956, and a B-25 bomber was on a routine transport flight, headed from Nevada to Pennsylvania to pick up some spare parts and also deliver a couple of passengers. As the plane neared Pittsburgh, a sudden loss of fuel was observed. The bomber ran out of gas, and with both engines out, it made a controlled belly landing in the Monongahela river. All six men aboard survived the landing, but only four were rescued. Two of the men died from exposure in the freezing January water. The real mystery is that the aircraft itself, in water that was scarcely deeper than the plane's tail stood from the ground, completely vanished. To this day, not a single relic or piece of debris has been found, despite extensive searching by numerous groups. Did the bomber manage to almost incredibly evade detection, or was it secretly removed?
The North American B-25 Mitchell was a twin-engine medium bomber developed just before the United States entered WWII. It saw service throughout the war and normally carried a crew of six. B-25s are best known from the Doolittle Raid, in which sixteen of them were launched from an aircraft carrier for a one-way bombing raid against Tokyo, greatly exceeding the design capabilities of both the carrier and the aircraft. It was a B-25 that crashed into the Empire State Building in 1945, killing 14 people. In 1969, nearly a quarter of all flying B-25 survivors were acquired and featured in the 1970 movie Catch-22. So it's a well-known plane with a familiar history.
This particular plane was a TB-25N, a variant designed for training navigators, of which some 47 were made. Its serial number was 44-29125. After the war it was stationed at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, from where it departed with 7 men on board on January 30, 1956. One man, a Cap. Tabak, stayed behind when the crew overnighted at Selfridge AFB in Michigan. The remaining six crew left for Olmstead AFB in Pennsylvania, a flight which should have required only an hour and 40 minutes. They left at 1:43pm on Tuesday, January 31, with three hours of fuel indicated on board — plenty for this short flight. Once they got to the vicinity of Pittsburgh, they noticed a sudden decrease in the fuel readings. No problems were found, but to be on the safe side, they decided to change course for Greater Pittsburgh Airport, the nearest refueling site. And, unfortunately, their story became one that's all too common in aviation. Weather closed in, they stayed aloft off-course longer than they should have; and once they sighted a break in the clouds, they were short on fuel and all they could see were populated areas. The fuel ran out and both engines quit at 3000 feet. Rather than crash into a populated area, they made the decision to ditch in the Monongahela river. The air temperature was below freezing; the water temperature only a fraction above.
The B-25 ditched in the river just clear of the 1936 Homestead Grays Bridge, following the current in a southwesterly direction. Reports from the crewmen and the witnesses state that the plane stayed afloat for 10-15 minutes, and during that time, drifted about one mile downstream. The current was reported as 8-10 knots, so all these numbers are roughly in the same ballpark; but it's hard to say at exactly what time the plane disappeared from view or exactly where that was, witnesses said it was near the Jones and Laughlin steel plant. The water in the Mon river (as it's commonly called) is kept dredged just deep enough for towboats and coal barges; if you stood a B-25 up on its end in the water, about half or even two-thirds of it would be out of the water. It seemed unthinkable that it might be able to sink and never be found; but at the time, energy was focused on rescuing the six men who were on the verge of a frozen death.
Dotson and Smith were picked up by a commercial boat. Alleman successfully swam to shore. Jamieson was rescued by a police boat. The other two men, Ingraham and Soocey, were seen swimming but didn't make it. Both bodies were recovered, but only after their remains were discovered months later.
The sunken airplane was an obvious hazard to navigation in the small river, so efforts to remove it began quite quickly, in fact the very next day. The water of the Mon was both muddy and polluted, so search efforts depended upon the dragging of anchors and grappling hooks, and hoping to latch onto something. For several days, a Coast Guard cutter, the Forsythia, marked all candidate debris with buoys. A barge commission by the US Army Corps of Engineers, the Monello II, patiently scraped and search each spot. Only once did they think they had something; operators began raising what they believed to be a wing of the aircraft, but the anchor slipped off and the object, whatever it was, sank and was not found again. No photographs were taken that may have confirmed what was believed to have been found.
After two weeks of combing the river with the mind-boggling result of not finding such a large object that must be in such a small space, the search was called off. Nobody has ever since reported finding so much as a scrap of aluminum. The loss defied all logic and expectations, but facts are facts. The Air Force put the salvage rights up for auction in September. They sold for $10. The buyer, John Evans who owned a nearby seaplane base, mounted his own search, but also found nothing.
So what did become of the plane, and do we have the facilities to solve this mystery after so many decades? The null hypothesis is that the wreck of the plane simply evaded detection, which does happen from time to time, in spite of its apparent unlikeliness. Some point to a jinx, as it was neither the first nor the last time a plane ditched in the Mon with a loss of life. Three such tragedies occurred in close succession: in 1955, an airliner ditched in river killing 10, and less than two months after the loss of the B-25, a Navy plane ditched near Masontown at night killing all three aboard. But associations like these are only apparent when pointed out; when viewed against the background noise of all data of all fatality crashes anywhere, they fade into randomness. Statistics do not, at all, support the existence of a "jinx" at the Mon river. Suggested theories go as far as claiming that Howard Hughes was on board, despite it obviously not fitting into the timeline of his life, nobody reporting rescuing him, and no coherent suggestion as to why he'd be there or why it would demand secrecy.
But the prevailing theory today is a bit of a conspiracy: some say the Air Force came in that very night of January 31, found, raised, and removed the wreck, and transported it away on trucks to a nearby Nike missile base, before daylight and before anyone began the "official" search on that cold February morning. This theory has become something of an urban legend, to the extent that any number of people have "come forward" and claimed to have been part of it in some way.
Researcher Robert Goerman has collected extensive anecdotal information supporting this version of events. This information consists of stories that someone heard an anonymous phone call into a radio station by a trucker claiming, 20 years after the fact, to have been hired to transport the wreckage in the middle of the night. Not only is this a third-hand anecdote, it's desperately illogical. If such a trucker existed — in defiance of the fact that the military had sufficient resources of its own — he was either paid or threatened into silence, but then allowed to speak freely about it on the radio. Such a fancy is indistinguishable from a crank call into the radio station, and doesn't deserve to be treated any differently.
There are other severe weaknesses in the Air Force conspiracy version of the story. For one thing, a TB-25N is a specially modified trainer version of the plane; it would be in no shape to carry a nuclear weapon, nor was there any reason for it to have done so in 1956. But, granted, if the Air Force had decided it wanted to use this particular TB-25N aircraft for some secret purpose, it certainly had the resources to do so. But the fact that it might have been so does not constitute evidence that it was. We've not left the realm of pure conjecture.
The biggest problem, from my analysis, is the proposal that the Air Force located, raised, disassembled, and transported the wreck during the dark of night, with no lights, with nowhere near enough time, and accomplished it with no witnesses. Fenced-off train tracks border both banks of the Mon river up and down that whole region. The southern bank is largely forested, and busy Carson Street runs alongside the tracks. On the north bank, the fenced-off train tracks separate the river from a trainyard, neighborhoods, utility yards, or forested areas, depending where you are. The claim that the Air Force completed their recovery with nobody noticing requires a lot of stretchers. For one thing, it's non-trivial to remove and replace fencing and get heavy equipment across active railorad tracks — certainly blocking the train tracks for a good part of the night — with nobody finding out. The traffic along Carson Street can easily see both sides of the river, and any lights used, or such light sources as cutting torches.
The military had no river assets like barges or cranes, and would have had to hire them; and yet the logs of all the assets that actually were hired into the project over the next few days have not been called into question, so far as I've been able to find.
But mainly, the B-25 was the Air Force's own plane. They were well within their rights to raise it, cut it apart, and take it wherever they wanted. There was no need for secrecy, even if they did have some clandestine cargo. It's not like nobody knew the Air Force existed or knew about nuclear weapons. In other cases, for example when an XB-70 bomber crashed in California in 1966, they cordoned off the area while doing their cleanup. There was no reason to do their recovery in the dead of night and pretend it never happened. The conspiracy version of events is without any meaningful evidence, would be unprecedented, illogical, and excrutiatingly improbable.
So where is the missing B-25? We don't know. But the group that has put the most time and energy into finding out has a theory that requires no leaps of logic. A private association called the B-25 Recovery Group, working with the Sen. John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, believes there is a solution that would fit all the observations. According to their research, extensive gravel dredging had been done for years right off of the Jones and Laughlin steel plant, at a place called Bird's Landing. This left great deep pits in the riverbed into which the B-25 quite likely would have sunk and been stuck. In the decades since, it's been covered with silt, and it's probable that nothing besides the engines, landing gear, and other heavy parts might remain — for anyone with the resources to dredge for it. So far, nobody has stepped up to do magnetometer readings or other expensive surveys. More than likely, according to their theory, the B-25 simply slipped Tetris-like into a slot that has effectively hidden it, and will likely remain so for the forseeable future.
Where is the TB-25N that fell into an icy grave all those years ago? The fact is we don't know, but we've also insufficient reason to believe it's anywhere other than where everyone saw it go. "I don't know" does not mean "I do know and it was an Air Force conspiracy", so for now, we're going to leave the book open.
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