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Missing Aircraft

C-54

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C-54

  Is that all there is to it? After all these years is it as simple as that? The plane flew into a squall between its route from Bermuda to West Palm Beach and simply disintegrated.  One might be tempted to imagine this, if the facts of the incident were not at hand. They present some disturbing parallels with other missing ships and planes.

   I myself had never regarded this incident as particularly interesting. It merited little commentary in books 30 years ago. (John Spencer was the first in his Limbo of the Lost. But per usual with Spencer, he seemed loathe to admit bad weather existed, and never did.  Lawrence Kusche often “solved” an incident by refuting popular rumors about them. In this case he thought the plane was a B-29 Superfort near Bermuda. He merely “solved”  a non existent flight in the wrong location.)

   However, I decided to get the Mishap Report from Maxwell AFB in Alabama. This mishap report reveals some interesting facts. For one, the airplane did fly through a squall. But a problem arose immediately: the squall was not on the airplane’s route; it had to have been far off course to begin with. And an after-the-fact examination of its position reports showed its erratic course began right after takeoff and continued

Specs

Length: 93 feet

Wingspan: 117 feet 6 inches

Capacity: 4 crew

Max. Speed 275

Cruising Speed: 190

Range: 4,000 miles

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throughout its flight. It was never once on course, and apparently the pilot nor the navigator knew it.

   This big C-54 transport was a military version of the civilian DC-4, a mainline airliner of its day capable of carrying 85 passengers. It left Bermuda on July 3, 1947, en route to Morrison AFB, Florida, under the command of Major Ralph B. Ward and 5 crew.

   Early on, the aircraft reported its position. Both the “A” and “B” position reports showed the aircraft was south of its intended course.  Then later, its C & D reports show that it had made a noticeable course change to north, passing its scheduled flight path by 50 miles before it turned southwest and paralleled it, keeping this distance north of it for the rest of the flight. By doing so, Ward was heading straight for the worst part of a squall he should have been able to avoid on his proscribed course.

   This odd course changing made the board vigorously investigate the navigator, who had been a last minute substitute before the flight took off. This only revealed he was a “Class 2” navigator and was therefore qualified for the trip. However, the flying of the plane was in the hands of Major Ward. And even if the navigator was bad this does not explain Ward flying straight into the eye of a thunderstorm.

   It is hard to explain how 2 members of the crew could lose or forget their training at the same time. Just a month or so before, general orders were passed around warning pilots to avoid flying through thunderstorms when they could avoid them. Yet Ward flew right into this one, apparently. The navigator, though qualified, sent the plane into the worst part of the weather front. The plane was clearly off course, and had been so to begin with after it left Bermuda. The fact is, the entire flight’s behavior cannot be explained.

   It is also hard to explain a garbled SOS that was received at Bermuda. This SOS was very low and faint, in sharp contrast to its last normal message. After a 45 second pause the faint SOS repeated, then was forever silent. Whoever was sending it, they transmitted no call sign. In fact, the operator at Bermuda, William Pentuff, thought it couldn’t have been from the plane because of this, although it also may have meant there was simply no time.. He thought that some station was tuning and didn’t want to send its call letters in case it was overheard. In this context, however, it is hard to explain why any station would use SOS to test their apparatus.

   Debris was located about 290 miles northeast of Florida. It consisted of a much publicized oxygen bottle and some other equipment, all of which argued for sudden and horrid destruction.

    After considering all available facts and existing weather conditions, it is the opinion of the Accident Investigating Board at Morrison Field, Florida, that the aircraft encountered violent turbulence and the pilot lost control of the aircraft.  It is possible that structural failure was a factor prior to contact with the ocean. No evidence of fire exists. There was no evidence of a ditching attempt and the debris found indicates that the crew compartment was torn apart on contact with the ocean. The last plotted position of the aircraft and the corresponding position of the frontal zone substantiates the weather assumption. Contributing factors to this accident were possible navigational error allowing aircraft to drift north of course to frontal zone and pilot error in that no apparent effort was made to circumnavigate the frontal weather.

  Hardly a simple or mundane crash.

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The oxygen bottle

Exposure suits

Paneling

Pillow and “Hell Hole” hatch

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