9 Lost and Found Airplanes

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You might think that an airplane would be a pretty difficult object to lose, but there are still large areas of wilderness on our planet where planes can be hidden for decades. On rare occasions they are found again, against all odds. Over the weekend, I saw an article headlined Remains of Early 1900s Plane Found in Antarctica. Wow, I thought, that's a long time for a plane to be lost! In fact, it was the first plane ever taken to Antarctica, during an expedition in 1912. But the real story is not what I first thought. For one thing, the plane didn't fly to Antarctica -it was hauled there. And it wasn't lost all that time; it had last been seen in the 1970s. Still, it is a rediscovered plane, and so fits in with stories I had already collected about lost and found airplanes.

1. The Air Tractor

Australian explorer Douglas Mawson led a 1912 expedition to Antarctica and took along a 1911 Vickers single-engine plane. Their plans were not to fly the plane, which had wing damage, but to use it to tow equipment. It was used in this manner until the harsh conditions left it unusable and then the "air tractor" was abandoned. There the plane sat for decades, not worth the expense of moving it. In the 1970s, researchers took pictures of it nearly encased in ice, then it was not seen again -until New Years Day, 2010. A team from the Mawson's Huts Foundation had been looking for the plane for three years, along with other artifacts of early Antarctic exploration. A season of low ice and a very low tide at Commonwealth Bay on Friday exposed the few parts of the plane that survive, right where it was abandoned. The parts were photographed and then taken for examination still submerged in sea water while the foundation decides the best way to preserve the air tractor in the name of history.

2. Lady B. Good

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A US Army Air Corps B-24D named Lady Be Good was part of a bombing raid on Italy on April 4, 1943. It was the first mission for both the plane and the crew. Lady Be Good was the only plane of the mission that did not return to its base in Libya. Officials assumed at the time that the plane went down in the Mediterranean Sea. An extensive search was carried out, but no sign of the plane or crew was found. In 1958 an oil survey exploration crew was taking aerial photographs and spotted the plane in the Libyan desert. The plane had crashed, but was preserved well in the arid conditions. The radio and a machine gun still worked! But there was no sign of the nine-man crew. In 1959, a months-long search was conducted to find their remains. A trail was found, complete with signs left behind indicating what direction the men had gone, but the trail petered out and the search was abandoned. In 1960, the remains of eight of the nine crew members were found at various places in the desert. Among the items found with the bodies was a diary of co-pilot Robert Toner that revealed the tragic story. The nine men had bailed out before the crash; eight survived. The survivors walked 85 miles before five gave up and three continued to walk until they died. The remains of gunner Vernon L. Moore were never found.

3. The Volcano

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On August 15, 1976, a Vickers 785D Viscount operated by the airline SAETA took off from Quito, Ecuador en route to Cuenca. Flight 232 never made it. Searchers could find no sign of the plane, its crew of four, or any of the 55 passengers. The two most likely scenarios were that the plane crashed on the Chimborazo volcano or that it was hijacked by Colombian guerrilla fighters. Twenty-six years later, wreckage of the plane was finally found scattered across hundreds of meters on the mountainside of Chimborazo. Some think that melting glaciers on the mountain caused the wreckage to become visible by 2002.

4. Helldiver

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On May 28, 1945, a US Navy SB2C-4 Helldiver went down in Lower Otay Reservior near San Diego. Pilot E. D. Frazar and Army gunner Joseph Metz were on a training mission when the plane's engine failed. They swam to shore while the bomber sank. The Helldiver was left buried in mud at the bottom of the lake. In 2009, Duane Johnson and Curtis Howard were fishing on the reservoir when Johnson's fish finder found the plane. Reservoir officials enlisted a salvage company to bring up the plane, which was completely buried in sediment. The recovery will be slow, as drinking water and taxpayer money is involved.

5. Glacier Girl

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On July 15, 1942 an entire squadron of planes, two B-17 bombers and six P-38s, flew out of Maine heading to England. Bitter cold and bad weather over Greenland caused the crews to lose their bearings and low fuel forced landings on the Greenland ice sheet, hours from the nearest refueling base. Supplies were dropped three days later, and eventually the crewmen were rescued. The planes left behind were buried in snow and ice over the years. Sub-surface radar found the planes in 1988, two miles from their original location and 268 feet deep in the glacier. In 1992, operations began to bring the planes out. A huge recovery effort brought a P-38 up by forcing hot water down through the ice. After four months of work the plane was taken, in pieces, to Middlesboro, Kentucky for restoration. Now known as the Glacier Girl, the P-38 flew again in 2001.

6. Yosemite

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On July 19, 1962, a plane carrying four young men home from a Billy Graham crusade left from Fresno, California headed to Sacramento. The rented 1959 Piper Cherokee never made it. The wreckage was suspected to have gone down in Yosemite National Park, but the park covers over 761,000 acres and the plane was not found until 1994. A worker at the park happened upon the wreckage in an isolated area near Stubblefield Canyon. Personal effects linked the plane to the four missing men from the 1962 crash. The crash was so remote that mules were used to bring parts of the wreckage out.

7. Fairey Battle on Ice

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On May 26, 1941, four RAF airmen took off in a Fairey Battle aircraft from Akureyri, Iceland headed to Reykjavik. They crashed into a mountain in bad weather and all four died. The wreckage was found two days later, and the airmen were memorialized on site a week later. Not long after, the Royal Air Force pulled out of Iceland and the plane was left behind to disappear under the snow. Hordur Geirsson of Akureyri, who was born years after the crash, spent two decades trying to find the site of the crash. In 1999, a friend relayed to him records detailing the exact location of the plane. Also, unprecedented warm temperatures melted the glacial ice to the extent that the wreckage of the Fairey Battle could be seen. In 2000, an expedition that included relatives of the deceased airmen reached the spot.

8. Steve Fossett

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A single-engine Bellanca Super Decathlon airplane piloted by businessman and adventurer Steve Fossett went missing over the Nevada desert on September 3, 2007. Despite a massive manhunt involving many agencies, volunteers, and even Google Earth, the plane was not found for a year. In September of 2008, evidence found by a hiker near Mammoth Lake led to the discovery of the crash site in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

9. Hellcat

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Lieutenant Walter Elcock crashed a Navy F6F-3 Hellcat fighter plane into Lake Michigan during a training exercise in 1945. Many planes suffered the same fate during World War II, but this one was brought back up in November of 2009. Andy Taylor, CEO of Enterprise Rent-A-Car arranged for his company to finance the recovery of the plane to honor his father, who was a Hellcat pilot in World War II. Elcock's grandson Hunter Browley explained how his grandfather caught the fourth wire of the carrier as he attempted to land the Hellcat and the plane's wing broke before plunging into the lake. Elcock was rescued by the Coast Guard, but the plane stayed at the bottom for 64 years. (Thanks, Steven!)

? Amelia Earhart

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The most famous lost plane of all is the Lockheed L-10E Electra that pilot Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan flew out of Lae, New Guinea on July 3, 1937 and was never seen again. The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) believes that Earhart and Noonan made it to uninhabited Gardner Island (now named Nikumaroro Island). The group found some personal effects dating from the correct time period on the island in 2007, and plan an expedition to recover possible DNA evidence in 2010.

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January 5, 2010 - 4:23am
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