One of Our Airliners Is Missing

If somebody said a four- engine airliner had disappeared with everybody aboard, you’d be surprised. If they added that it had disappeared in the populous U.S. Midwest and was seen by numerous eyewitnesses just before the crash, you’d be stunned. And if they told you the airplane has yet to be found 57 years later, you simply wouldn’t believe it.

Yet that’s the story, and it’s true. On June 23, 1950, Northwest Flight 2501, a Douglas DC-4 with 58 souls on board, crashed on a night of sporadic thunderstorms, en route from LaGuardia Airport, in New York, to Seattle, Wash., with a stop at Minneapolis, Minn. The four-engine airliner plunged into Lake Michigan somewhere in the vicinity of Benton Harbor. No survivors were found, though many small body parts—“none bigger than your hand,” according to a Coast Guard searcher—came to the surface and even washed ashore.

It was at the time the worst-ever airline catastrophe in the world. Nobody knows whether it was the result of an in-flight structural failure, an electrical anomaly that caused a fuel explosion, a thunderstorm upset or something even more mysterious.

Two days after that incident, on June 25, North Korea invaded South Korea.

Although a week or two of concerned but comparatively primitive searching for the wreck ensued—Coast Guard cutters dragging nets, a few hard-hat divers descending into the muddy blackness to grope fruitlessly, some World War II sonar put to work—the country shifted its focus to the Cold War suddenly gone hot, and Northwest 2501 was quickly forgotten.

Except by the Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates (MSRA), a group of local wreck hunters, and author Clive Cussler, the novelist and amateur marine archaeologist who was largely responsible for the discovery of the Confederate submarine CSS Hunley in 1995. Cussler has his own acronym association, the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA), and the two groups have joined forces in hopes of finding whatever is left of the DC-4. Cussler has financed two expeditions so far, with another underway at press time.

“We’re finding everything there is to find, but no airplane,” says search director Ralph Wilbanks. “If it was a 1,000-foot ship, this would be a lot easier.”

Unfortunately, what’s left of the 95-foot-long airplane is most likely buried in mud, and its four big Pratt & Whitney R-2000 radials are probably the only needles left in the huge haystack.

-Stephan Wilkinson

Returning a Piece of History

Two surprises were in store for attendees of the League of World War I Aviation Historians’ 10th seminar at the Hilton in Arlington, Va., on May 11, 2007. One of the speakers, Denny May, recounted the life and aviation careers of his father, Wilfrid Reid May, 13- victory Canadian ace and intended 81st victory of Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen when the Red Baron was killed on April 21, 1918. The other surprise involved a piece of fabric from a Fokker D.VII, marking the end of another German ace’s career.

Carl Menckhoff commanded Royal Saxon Jagdstaffel 72, had 39 victories to his credit and was wearing the Orden Pour le Mérite when a Spad XIII put a bullet in his engine that forced him to land in Allied lines on July 25, 1918. Adding to Menckhoff’s chagrin was the discovery that the man who brought him down, 1st Lt. Walter L. Avery of the 95th Aero Squadron, had limited previous experience defending Paris with French Escadrille N.471, and that this had been Avery’s first aerial combat.

Avery let Menckhoff keep his “Blue Max” medal—which some French soldier subsequently took—but cut a section of fabric from the side of his wrecked Fokker D.VII bearing the pilot’s initial, a large white “M,” as a souvenir. Awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for that action, he went on to score two more victories before being shot down and taken prisoner by another German ace and squadron leader, Oliver von Beaulieu-Marconnay of Jasta 19, on October 3, 1918. Menckhoff, held prisoner by the French, escaped in August 1919 to Switzerland, where he became a businessman and remained until his death in 1948.

Sometime after Avery’s death in 1978, his daughter, Bette Avery Applegate, found the war trophy in a trunk, and on May 11 she returned it to Gerhard Menckhoff, Carl Menckhoff’s son, who lived in the District of Columbia. Gerhard Menckhoff, who was 11 when his father died, had never heard about his wartime career and was equally surprised when Mrs. Applegate announced her decision to present the relic to him, stating, “I just feel it should go back to the family from which it came.”“I never would have thought it would come around full circle this way,” said Menckhoff upon receiving the panel from his father’s plane almost 89 years after it had been shot down.

– Jon Guttman

The Last B-26K

The very first American combat aircraft to go to war in Vietnam, in late 1961, weren’t Phantoms or Thuds but elderly Douglas B-26 Invaders—twin-engine, prop-driven medium bombers that had served in Korea and been retired to boneyards. Early B-26s had even done duty late in World War II as A-26s—at that time their “attack” designator, to differentiate them from the contemporaneous Martin B-26 Marauder—and 16 CIA-backed B-26Bs had participated in the disastrous April ’61 Bay of Pigs invasion. But the design had a fatal flaw: a weak wing spar.

In 1954 a California company called On Mark began converting surplus Invaders into fast executive transports for high rollers who didn’t mind sitting just aft of two straight-piped 2,500-hp radials. On Mark developed a stout ring-spar modification to link the wings inside the fuselage, and the Air Force thought this upgrade, plus some external steel spar straps, could make B-26s redeployable as serious bomb trucks and yank-and-bank ground-support ships. They contracted with On Mark to modify 40 old Invaders as B-26K “Counter Invaders,” so named because they were intended to be counterinsurgency aircraft.

The Air Force couldn’t send frontline aircraft to Southeast Asia, since we weren’t supposed to be in the war, which was then assumedly being fought between the South Vietnamese and the Viet Cong. In fact the B-26Ks didn’t even carry USAF stars and bars— just camouflage—and their crews wore nonstandard insignia-less, spooky-black flight suits. They were based in Thailand, at “NKP”—Nakhon Phanom—and flown by volunteers of the 609th Air Commando Squadron, the “Nimrods,” mainly to interdict VC on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

In a fine bit of bureaucracy-dodging, the Counter Invaders were officially redesignated as World War II A-26As, because Thailand didn’t allow the basing of bombers on its territory, though attack aircraft apparently were just fine. Nor did any of the Nimrods get credit or medals for their efforts, since they officially did not exist.

Thirty-eight years after the last Counter Invaders were retired, however, somebody still cares—an organization called the A-26 Legacy Foundation, made up of the sons and daughters of Nimrod aircrews. The group is focused on raising enough donations to buy the very last B-26K to come out of the On Mark shop, in 1965. Still flyable, the airplane they’ve dubbed Special K has much of its original equipment, though it never flew in Vietnam. (It was in fact one of the more luxurious of the civil On Mark Marksman aircraft and has a fuselage that was widened to accommodate an executive cabin.)

The A-26 Legacy Foundation, based in Jaffrey, N.H., is soliciting anything from individual donations to the purchase of actual ownership shares in the plane, which they plan to fly at airshows and use to offer rides to the public. (Bring earplugs.) They can be reached at www.a-26legacy.org and 603-532-5802.

-Stephan Wilkinson

eBay Sea Harrier

Last December, a 39-year-old Englishman, Neil Banwell, ventured onto eBay (with the help of his computer-literate 14-year-old daughter) and made his maiden Internet purchase: one Hawker Siddeley Sea Harrier VTOL fighterbomber. “Jess put in the bid for me and the next morning we found out we owned a Sea Harrier,” Banwell admits. Media reports claimed that he paid $19,500, but Banwell says it was a bit more than that— “about the same as a new car.”

Sea Harriers sold for 35 million pounds in 1979, when Banwell’s airplane, Royal Navy identification number ZX494, was built. So even if he paid a Mercedes price, it was arguably a bargain—if there is such a thing—for a novel piece of aviation history. The jump jet currently sits in a small hangar outside his home in the village of Wedmore, in Somerset.

It’s a handsome-looking piece, having been recently repainted and detailed. The airframe is complete but engineless and has been stripped of its major electronic components. Still in place, however, are the airplane’s two 30mm Aden cannons, presumably demilitarized. Nonetheless, those are guns that have seen action: Banwell’s airplane led the first raid against Port Stanley’s then Argentine-held airfield during the Falklands War in 1982. ZX494 cluster-bombed the runway, though it notched no air-to-air victories; other Sea Harriers shot down 21 Argentine aircraft, many of them Douglas A-4 Skyhawks.

Banwell, a home-building contractor, is a bit of a Falklands War buff, as are many other patriotic Brits who remember the days of that splendid but near-pointless little war when Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher stunned the Argies by sending a strong fleet halfway around the world, to the very limits of Britain’s supply lines and into some of the most inhospitable waters in the world, simply to see Argentina’s bet and raise them one. “I was 14 when the war broke out,” Banwell says, “and I used to watch Sea Harriers on the news every night.”

Banwell also lives just 15 miles from historic Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton, a former Sea Harrier base, so the sight of the jump jets overhead was long a daily occurrence. “I was disappointed when they stopped flying them last year,” he admits.

No, RNAS Yeovilton will not in turn become accustomed to the sight of Banwell’s Sea Harrier overhead. He has no plans to put the airplane back into flying condition—something the UK licensing authorities would in any case regard with about the same enthusiasm as they’d view free-range lions roaming the streets of London—but is tinkering with it in the same way any bored bloke would potter with an old Porsche. “I’m doing it up,” he assures us. If you happen to have any old Sea Harrier parts lying around—“I’m looking mainly for an engine and exhaust nozzles,” Neil told us—he’s at neil.banwell@hotmail.co.uk, though daughter Jess may have to open your e-mail for her father.

-Stephan Wilkinson

 

Originally published in the September 2007 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.