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Mystery of U.S. aircraft “missing” during flight over Canada continues to raise questions

By Dirk Septer Defence Watch Guest Writer More than 71 years ago, on January 26, 1950, US Air Force Douglas C-54D Skymaster Serial 42-72469 went missing on a flight between Anchorage/Elmendorf, Alaska and Great Falls, Montana.

Two hours into the flight while crossing the Yukon-British Columbia border, the last contact with the plane was in a radio position report received at 1:14 p.m. This report stated that the aircraft had passed over Snag, Yukon Territory, and five minutes later was expected to be over Aisihik This would be the last message after which nothing more was heard from the military transport.

The four-engine aircraft, carrying 41 military personnel and three civilians, including an expectant woman and her infant son, had simply disappeared without a trace. Since then, there has been much speculation about the fate of the USAF Skymaster. History Channel’s disappointing documentary “Missing in Alaska,” claimed the aircraft disappeared in a “time-vortex.” Another documentary on the Skymaster is expected to be released shortly.

But what do we know about this incident? For starters, the aircraft actually isn’t missing in the Yukon. It likely crashed on Gold Mountain, just north of the BC-Montana border.

Based on interviews and historical documents, here is an outline of what is believed to have happened. Since the C-54, the military version of the Douglas DC-4, was still unreported after its fuel supply was exhausted an extensive organized aerial search was instituted, combining the joint efforts of the United States and Royal Canadian Air Forces. The search, which encompassed approximately 871,000 square miles and which proved fruitless, was suspended 20 February, 1950.

As what often happens after ships or aircraft disappear without a trace under what may seem mysterious circumstances, rumours and conspiracy theories about the missing Skymaster abounded. One of the most persistent ones was that the aircraft had carried a substantial payroll, either in cash or even in gold! However, with more important breaking news following the start of the Korean War, the fate of the missing aircraft was soon forgotten.

Maybe forgotten by most, but certainly not by the next of kin of those 44 souls on board. Did the aircraft fly into a glacier and had been covered in snow and ice? Or is the wreckage lying on the bottom of one of the many then frozen lakes en route?

Having crashed there and initially been covered by snow, later that spring when the ice melted, the aircraft could simply have sunk to the bottom, never to be found again. Did some of the people on board survive the crash? If so, did they stay with the wreckage but eventually after having given up hope to be rescued, started to walk out?

Given the harsh weather and terrain conditions, they would not have much chance and probably would have perished soon along the way and leaving relatives wondering about their fates forever. The aircraft may not have been heard from, it certainly was seen further along the Alaska Highway on its way south. A trapper at Beaver Lake, 40 miles northeast of Williams Lake in the Interior of British Columbia, saw and heard a large aircraft apparently in trouble pass over his cabin later that day.

Finally a surprising number of reports came from the East Kootenay-Columbia region, from such locations as Newgate, Revelstoke, Salmo, Cranbrook and Waldo. On the evening of January 26 and the next day, reports came in from northern Montana as well. Several witnesses reported sightings of flares and later signal fires.

The first flares were seen roughly three hours after they last observed the aircraft, which ended close to the 6,507-foot peak possibly on a small frozen lake or very near it. The most convincing information came from Newgate, right on the Canada-U.S. border southeast of Cranbrook. Here a large aircraft was seen that seemed to be in trouble and disappearing and possibly crashing on Gold Mountain.

Two 11- and 9-year old brothers first spotted a “large aircraft in trouble” flying close over their parent’s Newgate ranch. With smoke pouring out of one engine, the aircraft seemed to be heading towards the west and the started circling towards the south before dropping behind Gold Mountain. Tyler Lindberg, a government road foreman at Waldo, also reported to the B.C.

Provincial Police seeing smoke signals. Late on February 2, he had observed three definite large smoke puffs with an intermission. Then this procedure would have been repeated at intervals.

Local newspapers like the Kootenay Advertiser and Fernie Free Press reported details of the miscellaneous sightings.All these observations were widely published in newspapers all across British Columbia and Alberta, including places like Nanaimo and Lethbridge, respectively. On February 9, 1950, the Fernie Free Press flashed on their front page: “Excitement ran high in the South Country last Thursday and Friday when a report was turned in to British Columbia Police by a C.P.A. [Canadian Pacific Airlines] Lines pilot, that he had noticed smoke signals south of Elko while flying over that part of the country.” On February 2, this CPA pilot flying from Calgary, AB. to Trail, BC reported seeing smoke signals while flying over the Rocky Mountain area south of Elko.

Thinking these signals were possibly from the missing C-54, he turned the information over to the B.C. Provincial Police. Dour Truman in West Kootenai, Montana, reported seeing signal fires as well.

Most likely the Skymaster went down on a gentle upslope somewhere below 6,000 feet in an area that had burned in the 1930s, and then was covered in thick smaller sized trees, as can be seen on 1952 aerial photographs Being on a south-facing slope with no roads between the mountain and the US border, the wreckage remained hidden from view till the fall of 1959 when spotted by two American hunters. Now the rest of the wreckage was buried and nobody was told about it.

Coincidentally, a few months later on June 23, 1950, another Douglas DC-4 crashed. This civilian aircraft registered N95425 belonging to Northwest Orient Airlines disappeared on a flight between New York-Idlewild and Minneapolis. Though the bodies of those were recovered from the lake the DC-4 had ended up in, these were buried in two secret unmarked mass graves, which were only discovered in 2008 and 2015, respectively.

Hopes of “officially” finding the missing C-54 is still being kept alive by a Facebook Group “Operation Mike, started in2012. Later that same year, the descendants of the missing 44 people aboard started an unsuccessful petition to the US Federal government through the “We the People” petition system, seeking to reopen the search for the missing aircraft. Despite this to be considered one of the largest groups of military personnel to ever go missing, the US Air Force, never showed much interest in solving this tragic loss.

One of the next of kin, who wrote to President Obama was not impressed by his response: Every day our service men and women strive to uphold their pledge to leave no man or woman behind, working around the world to identify and recover our missing heroes….. As work to secure a safer, freer world, we remember the service, sacrifice, and courage of those who have not returned from the battlefield.

We will never cease in our mission to try to bring them home. ( Dirk Septer is an aviation historian and photographer who focuses on the West Coast and Canadian Arctic. He is the author of Lost Nuke – The Last Flight of Bomber 075, as well as the lead investigator in the television documentary Lost Nuke , which first aired on the Discovery Channel in 2004.)

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