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Missing Aircraft

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Into the Blue

The drone of the DC-3 liner is heard everyday in Florida, the Bahamas and the whole of the Caribbean. These classic beauties find a happy home in the geography of the southern Triangle, where many times commuter distances between islands are too short for big jumbo jets and on routes where the small island runways aren’t big enough. Island hopping is their duty. All over Florida’s tarmacs they can be seen, either awaiting charter tours, in pest control service, ready for skydiving, or impounded by the sheriffs for drug smuggling. Convairs, Martin 4-0-4s, DC-4s on up through DC-7s, and perhaps an old C-97 (the old Boeing 377 Stratocruiser) join their numbers in cargo service.

   The Douglas Dakota, or DC-3, is considered the most reliable aircraft ever built. More than 10,000 were built and hundreds remain in service today. During W.W.II and Korea, the C-47 (the same as the DC-3) was the main cargo transport and parachute plane. These same aircraft that dodged ack-ack, flew over Normandy, or supplied Berlin during the cold-war airlift, now show off the company logos of dozens of local charter airline companies and cargo lines. But their numbers are dwindling as smaller jets take over their duties.

     Disaster, of course, has struck, with all its ninefold— dead bodies, wreckage, floating momentos and schools of sharks swimming about. But it is not the spectacular wreckage and morbid scenes that attract my attention. It is the mystery of those that vanish and leave no trace whatsoever.

   Three of these airliners are known to have vanished in the Bermuda Triangle. All of them within 50 miles of the same location, near the Florida Keys.

DC-3

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Specs

Length: 64 feet 5 inches

Wingspan: 95 feet

Capacity: 21-32 passengers

Max. Speed 237

Cruising Speed: 150

Range: 1,025 miles

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   The first, and most famous, was NC16002. This was an airliner for Airborne Transport of Miami. With a full compliment of passengers, and crew (31 persons aboard) it was only 20 minutes from its destination of Miami. It was a crisp, clear winter tropic night on December 28, 1948. The pilot, Bob Linquist, radioed he was 50 miles south and just beginning his approach. However, nothing was ever heard from him again. It was still dark on that early morning. There was plenty of opportunity for anybody in the Keys to both see or hear an explosion in the sky— the most logical excuse for sudden destruction. The shallow waters around the Keys easily aid in identifying an aircraft silhouette below. But an intensive search did not find a thing.

     The following is what is known about the flight before it vanished. It is based on the Civil Aeronautic Board Report: Airborne Transport, December 28, 1948, Miami, Florida.

     NC16002 (the registration of this DC-3) landed at San Juan International Airport, Puerto, Rico, at 7:40 p.m. the night of the 27th en route from Miami. Stewardess Mary Burkes deplaned the passengers while copilot, Ernest Hill, went over the routine checks.

     Robert Linquist informed the local repair crew that the landing light did not come on to indicate the landing gear was locked. The repair crew discovered the batteries to be low on water and refilled them. However, they said it would take several hours to recharge the batteries to optimum level. Linquist didn’t want to wait that long, so he said he would recharge them in flight.

     Everything seemed OK now. Linquist declared the plane in good working order at 8:30 p.m. and filed a Flight Plan back to Miami. However, more battery trouble ensued. While this was being checked into, Mary Burkes boarded the 28 passengers for the return trip. Everything else checked out all right, so Linquist taxied to the end of runway 27. The lack of two way radio contact quickly held him at the end of the tarmac. There was another annoying wait until the head of Puerto Rican Transport drove to the plane. Linquist told him they were receiving properly, but that the transmitter, due to the low batteries, was not sending. Linquist agreed to stay close to San Juan until the batteries were recharged and he could make two-way contact.

   At 10:03 p.m. NC16002 was finally airborne. After 11 minutes of circling the city, CAA at San Juan was able to receive a message from Linquist. He was now departing San Juan for Miami. The airliner broke its circling pattern and headed out over the ocean. As they droned out to sea, the string of lights of San Juan’s streets, those of the industrial center and those floodlights illuminating the historic castle of El Morro, quickly faded behind them.

     The weather was perfect, a balmy tropic night.

     After this the aircraft passed in and out of what seemed like radio voids. CAA tried to contact Linquist again, but could not get a response. Only an hour or so after takeoff, at 11:23 p.m., Overseas Foreign Air Route Traffic Control Center at Miami heard a routine transmission, in which Linquist stated they were at 8,300 feet and gave his ETA at 4:03. a.m. His message placed the flight about 700 miles away from Miami.

     As with many other disappearances in the Triangle, this is one example of where a distant point of reception— in this case, Miami— overheard the messages, but a much closer station like San Juan could not reach the plane. This cannot be blamed on the transmitter or batteries.

     Subsequent transmissions were heard sporadically. All seemed to be routine. Linquist next reported himself 50 miles south of Miami. The same strange radio quirks replayed themselves here. Linquist was not heard by Miami, but was overheard by New Orleans 600 miles away, who in turn informed Miami.

     The weather around Miami was perfect: clear with a slight headwind, a warm tropic Yule time. There seems no explanation for the disappearance of this aircraft and all those on board. There was only about 20 minutes left in the flight. So whatever it was it struck quickly and was completely destructive.

   In trying to explain the mystery some have opted for the conventional, blaming Linquist’s transmitter problems. They believe he may not have received the wind direction change that was broadcast from Miami at 12:15 a.m. This change was from the northwest to northeast. Without this information, over the allotted time of their flight, Linquist and Hill would have been blown 40 to 50 miles south of their course. Therefore they could have been far off course and subsequently got lost, ran out of fuel, and ditched with nobody surviving.

     This is an easy theory. However, one must remember that Linquist stated he had trouble transmitting, not receiving. Nevertheless, since he stated he was 50 miles south of Miami, he probably had not received the weather update. Yet, apparently, he knew where he was since the location he broadcast tallies with the approximate distance he should have been blown off his course. This can be explained by an astral fix. The weather was perfect; there was no difficulty in Linquist obtaining an astral fix on his own to determine position. Linquist most probably was where he said he was.

   Then there is the fuel factor. He really must have been running short of fuel by this time. There wasn’t much time or space in which he could get lost. The only explanation for the disappearance was that NC16002 vanished extremely quickly from causes unknown, just as we have seen in so many others.

     What could have done this? This is just another example of a plane that, seemingly, was disintegrated close to land. No trace could be found in the shallow water. No wreckage, bodies. No mayday was picked up by anybody. No crash was seen in the Everglades, and to this day 65 years later no trace has ever come of an unknown DC-3 in the Glades, around the Ten Thousand Islands, or in the Bahamas (and I personally have enough local contacts who are aware of what one looks like).    

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Videos: The first one shows a badly disintegrated wreck in the Bahamas; the other shows a fairly intact ditched C-47 (wartime Army DC-3) off Turkey.

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  Thirty years later another DC-3’s disappearance would give startling corroboration to the theory of total destruction and lightning-like disappearance. In this case, this DC-3 disappeared while on radar. In 1948, NC16002’s search was delayed by some 4 hours, (before the plane was finally declared overdue). Some argue this gave the Gulf Stream enough time to disperse any debris and bodies. However, in the case of N407D in 1978, rescue crews, rushing to the scene faired no better.

   The following comes from the National Transportation Safety Board report:  Missing aircraft between Fort Lauderdale, FL, and Havana, Cuba, September 21, 1978, Douglas DC-3 N407D.

     The purpose of Argosy Airlines Flight 902 had been arranged by the pilot, George Hamilton. He was to fly to Havana on September 21, 1978, to pick up 21 US citrus growers who were there on tour. He obtained special permission since Cuba is restricted territory. Pete Rustinberghe would be the copilot; and the cabin attendants would be Pauline Lowe and Hamilton’s wife, Barbara.

   At 11:13 a.m. Hamilton requested clearance; and at 11:24 Flight 902 was cleared to taxi out from Walkers Cay Jet Center runway 9L for takeoff. At precisely 11:29 a.m. they lifted off from Fort Lauderdale. All was observed to be normal.

   Shortly afterward, while gazing down on the majestic coastline view below, Pete Rustinberghe called Miami. “This is Pete Rustinberghe of Argosy Flight 902. We’ll be going to Havana, Cuba, and I’d like to get the weather along the route and all the goodies if I could please.”

   Miami came back: “OK, first of all no fronts or systems going down. That tropical wave is still south of Haiti, not affecting the ah weather in Cuba at all. International forecast wise: just lower scattered to broken cumulous, patchy scattered to broken middle clouds bases around 8 to 10 thousand with isolated thunderstorm and rain shower activity along that route.”

   The weather report being good, Hamilton and Rustinberghe kicked back for a routine flight. Pauline Lowe and Barbara Hamilton did odds and ends in the pantry and talked about Havana (Obviously a guess, but under the circumstances a fairly reliable one).

   Departing the Key’s chain of islands, Argosy 902 flew over the deep blue Gulf Stream. Thick clouds billowed here and there, casting their shadows over the busy Gulf Stream traffic below.

     Hamilton called Miami: “Miami Center, this is Argosy nine zero two at six thousand feet.” At this point Argosy 902 experienced selective radio communication. In this case, Miami did not respond. Moments later, at 12:25 p.m., Argosy 902 emerged on Havana’s radar scopes, but Havana could not read any of the messages from the flight due to static. As a courtesy, a high altitude plane relayed the messages to Havana. At 12:35 p.m. the messages became loud and clear.

     Havana was ready to guide Argosy 902 in. The next sweep of the scope showed the DC-3 902 to the right of its course. Then after only a single sweep of the scope, at 12:43 p.m., Argosy Flight 902 was gone. There was no more green blip on the scope. There was no SOS. There was no ELT signal.

   Miami and Havana coordinated an immediate search. USAF and US Coast Guard units raced to the scene, while Cuban air patrol made over-flights within the first hour. By afternoon Coast Guard cutter Steadfast was coordinating the surface effort. The search was expanded to all traffic, plus 4 more cutters, a helicopter and a C-131 with the following cable:

ALL SHIPPING STRAITS OF FLORIDA-NICHOLAS CHANNEL
ARGOSY AIRLINES FLT. 902 (N407D) IS OVERDUE ON A
FLIGHT FROM FORT LAUDERDALE TO HAVANA, CUBA. DESC:
WHITE WITH BLUE TRIM. 4 PERSONS ON BOARD. ALL SHIPS
ARE REQUESTED TO KEEP A SHARP LOOKOUT FOR DEBRIS,
YELLOW LIFE JACKETS. PEOPLE IN THE WATER. SIGNED U.S.
COAST GUARD MIAMI, FL.

     The yellow life jackets numbered 32. The seat cushions on 902 were the floatable kind, blue gray in color.

   On the 24th of September the search was discontinued with negative results. Nothing, as in the many others losses, was ever located.

   Comment on radio and television concerning the incident was lively and up to the minute. At 11:15 p.m. the night of the disappearance, Miami’s UPI got a call from a English speaking man with a Spanish accent. He claimed to represent Hijos De La Estrella Solitaria (Sons of the Solitary Star), a terrorist organization. After finishing the niceties of his introduction, he said: “We claim full responsibility for the explosion of the DC-3 over Cuban waters” then hung up. The prevalence of such a theory at the time reflects the frustration in the press and officialdom in trying to account for Argosy’s total disappearance by any conventional theory. However, knowing the erratic minds that follow such disasters it should not be given much credence. Moreover, no one had ever heard of such a terrorist group. The “claimant” never called again, leaving only lurid speculation in his wake. Had the DC-3 blown up, it should be pointed out, it would have left debris scattered all over. Also, Argosy would not have suddenly lost heading before a surprise explosion.

   Touching on this, Conclusion 7 of the report deduced: “Weather data available for the time and place of the aircraft’s last identified radar position revealed that circumnavigation of the weather cells should have presented no problem and probably accounts for the slight deviation of the flight to the right of course.”

   As a viable theory, pilot error was reduced to zero when Hamilton’s records were pulled. He had amassed 15,227 total flight hours, 3,000 in DC-3s. Standard conclusions held no speculations. “Aircraft Damage and Injury Index Presumed.” The case was closed.

 

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