Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Searching For Missing Aircraft

Some crash sites are never found, and it can take a long time to find others

Questions heard with increasing frequency during the first weeks of fruitless searching for Malaysia Air-lines Flight MH370 concerned whether the search would eventually be abandoned, and whether it's possible that we might never know what happened to the Boeing 777 with 239 people on board. There have been occasions when searches were abandoned, but an accident site was discovered by chance. There also are particular aircraft that have yet to be found.

Probably the most infamous concerned the disappearance of Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, in a twin-engine Lockheed Electra. The last radio call from the airplane was on July 2, 1937, near Howland Island in the Pacific Ocean. In addition to the massive initial search, there were numerous other searches over the years, some of which appeared to have found what some consider to be evidence of the airplane.

On January 30, 1979, a Boeing 707 cargo airplane operated by Varig Airlines took off from Tokyo en route to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The airplane was to make a stop at Los Angeles. Six crewmembers were on board. Among the cargo were valuable paintings. The airplane disappeared about 30 minutes after departure. No trace was found.

On November 1, 1965, the crew of a Douglas C-54 Skymaster operated by Argentina's military radioed they had an emergency and were diverting to Puerto Limón, Costa Rica. There was no further contact with the airplane. Searchers recovered pieces of debris from the Caribbean Sea, but couldn't find the main wreckage or remains of the 68 people who had been on board.

On March 16, 1962, Flying Tiger LineFlight 739 disappeared after taking off from a refueling stop on Guam. The Lockheed Super Constellation carried 96 soldiers and 11 crew on a military charter from the U.S. to Saigon, South Vietnam. The U.S. Navy searched an area of 200,000 square miles, but turned up nothing. Crewmembers on a tanker reported having seen what looked like an explosion in the sky at about the time the airplane went missing. The U.S. Civil Aeronautics Board determined that there had been an explosion on board, but couldn't assign a cause. Speculation ranged from sabotage to a fuel accident.

On June 23, 1950, Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 2501 disappeared while on an overnight flight over Lake Michigan. The DC-4 was en route from New York's LaGuardia Airport to Seattle, Wash. The flight had been at 3,500 feet in an area of developing weather. Shortly after 1 a.m., the crew requested a descent to 2,500 feet for weather avoidance. The request was denied because of traffic. It's believed the airplane had a thunderstorm encounter. Some debris and human remains were found, but the main wreckage was never located. There were 55 passengers and three crewmembers on board.

Even today, the NTSB's files cover a few general aviation disappearances in which we're not likely to ever know what happened to particular aircraft, and others in which official searches had ended and wreckage was discovered by chance months or years later.


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