SOUTH HAVEN, Mich (WZZM) - At the time, it was considered America's worst commercial aviation disaster. Today, it remains one of our country's most mysterious plane crashes.
The wreckage of Northwest Flight 2501, which crashed into Lake Michigan off the coast of South Haven in 1950, has never been located and a cause for the crash has never been determined. More than six decades later, unanswered questions continue to define this tragedy. But a group of people is committed to locating the plane, ending the mystery and bring much needed closure to the descendants of the victims.
It happened on Friday, June 23, 1950. Northwest Airlines Flight 2501 departed New York's LaGuardia Airport around 8:30 p.m. EST and headed west, non-stop to Minneapolis, Minnesota. Its final destination that fateful night was Seattle, Washington.
Flight 2501 was a Douglas DC-4 prop-liner, piloted by Captain Robert C. Lind and co-piloted by Verne F. Wolfe. Stewardess Bonnie Ann Feldman was responsible for tending to the 55 passengers on board, which were identified as 27 women, 22 men and 6 children. Before the flight took off from New York, Captain Lind was advised of severe thunderstorms developing over Lake Michigan.
Flight 2501 was still cleared for takeoff.
According to the flight plan, air traffic control specified a cruising altitude of 6,000 feet to Minneapolis. At 10:49 p.m. EST, when Flight 2501 was over Cleveland, Ohio, Captain Lind requested a lower cruising altitude of 4,000 feet which was approved.
Forty minutes later, air traffic control directed Flight 2501 to descend to 3,500 feet to separate itself from an eastbound flight which was cruising at 5,000 feet and reporting severe turbulence over Lake Michigan.
At 11:51 p.m. EST, Flight 2501 passed over Battle Creek, Michigan and entered the storm front.
Captain Lind then notified Northwest's air traffic control center in Chicago that he estimated passing over Milwaukee, Wisconsin 46 minutes from that time, but during his dialogue offered no indication of experiencing any turbulence. Lind's course was due to cross Lake Michigan in air corridor "Red 57" which runs from Glenn, Michigan on a northeasterly course to Milwaukee.
At 12:13 p.m. EST, according to the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) Report, the plane was in the vicinity of Benton Harbor, Michigan, which was 20 miles south of its intended route. Captain Lind then requested a descent to 2,500 feet, but did not indicate a reason for the request. Air traffic control denied the altitude change request due to other traffic in the area.
One minute later, Captain Lind acknowledged the reply. That was the last communication from Northwest Flight 2501.
By dawn on June 24th, evidence of a crash had become clear as search crews came across an oil slick on the surface of Lake Michigan and a large debris field. No complete humans were recovered.
"These were real people and their lives were lost in an instant," said Valerie van Heest, Director of Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates. "The plane is out there somewhere. It could be anywhere as far as 50 miles offshore."
van Heest founded MSRA in 2001, and began searching for the lost plane in 2004.
"Each year we get closer, because each year we know where the plane isn't," added van Heest, whose interest in the missing airliner grew, as did her interest in finding living relatives of the victims.
"In a space of seven years, I have found 50 of the 58 families, and they're all still looking for answers," said van Heest.
Many of the stories the victim's family members shared were heart-wrenching.
"One of the passengers, Rosalie Gorski, died while pregnant," said van Heest, referring to her interviews with the victim's descendants. "Her husband didn't even know it. I learned from her sister that [Rosalie] had just found out she was having a baby and she was on her way to share that story with her husband."
"To this day, [Rosalie's husband] doesn't know, and he went to his grave not knowing [that his wife was pregnant when she lost her life in the crash]," said van Heest emotionally.
As MSRA intensified its interest in finding Flight 2501, the group was contacted by adventure novelist and underwater archeologist Clive Cussler about offering some of the world's best help to find Flight 2501.
"When Clive Cussler makes an offer like that, you don't refuse," said van Heest jokingly.
With the proceeds from his books, Cussler formed a non-profit organization, the National Underwater Marine Agency (NUMA) which mounts expeditions around the world to find lost shipwrecks and solve other historical mysteries. Cussler has discovered more than 80 shipwrecks around the world.
According to van Heest, MSRA compiled research on the crash and developed an initial search grid for Cussler's first expedition in 2004.
"It was even more exciting when [Clive Cussler] told us who he was sending to West Michigan [to search for the plane]", said van Heest.
Ralph Wilbanks, a marine archeologist for the past 35 years, and known as one of the world's finest side scan sonar operators, brought his NUMA team to West Michigan eight years ago. Wilbanks' claim to fame was locating the infamous H.L. Hunley Civil War submarine, which sank off the coast of South Carolina August 29, 1863. Wilbanks discovered the long-lost vessel in 1995.
"It will be really nice to find this airplane," said Wilbanks, who graciously invited WZZM photojournalist, Andy Sugden on his search boat for a 12-hour day to look for Flight 2501. "This is where 58 people lost their lives. If we can solve this, it would be worth it."
Wilbanks and his NUMA crew has spent the past month venturing 20 miles out from the South Haven Channel, combing the bottom of Lake Michigan trying to find the lost plane. He's been here every spring since 2004.
"We do a very systematic search," said Wilbanks, while watching sonar activity from his captain's chair aboard the boat. "If [the wreckage] is a pile of material down there, we should be able to see it."
Wilbanks uses a magnetometer, along with side scan sonar, to locate the wreckage in 200-300 foot deep water.
"It's got to be something that sticks up," said Wilbanks, while discussing how to locate objects with the magnetometer.
Wilbanks estimates during his nine years of Lake Michigan expeditions to find Flight 2501, his NUMA crew has covered more than 300 square miles, yet, the plane remains missing in the deep. But, what isn't missing, is hope.
"Everyday we go out could be the day," said van Heest. "The airplane is out there somewhere. We're working with the best search crew in the world, Clive Cussler and Ralph Wilbanks. It's going to be found; we just don't know when."
Ralph Wilbanks says he and the NUMA crew will continue their search for Northwest Flight 2501 until Memorial Day. If they don't find it, he expects to return to West Michigan next spring for a tenth expedition.
Valerie van Heest is writing a book about Flight 2501 and hopes to have it completed early next year.