On January 31, 1956, a Mitchell B-25 bomber, on a flight from Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada to Olmstead Air Force Base in Harrisburg, crashed in the Monongahela River (locally known as the "Mon"), just outside of Pittsburgh. The crew of six survived the crash, but two were later claimed by the icy waters of the Mon river.
What happened over the next two weeks fueled one of Pittsburgh's greatest unsolved mysteries. What became of the B-25 bomber?
Theories About What Happened to the B-25 Bomber
In the two weeks following the crash, a search for the plane was conducted, but no trace of the B-25 was ever found. Theories about the plane's disappearance are plentiful and are still discussed throughout Pittsburgh.
Some think the plane was carrying a secret cargo of nuclear weapons, nerve gas, Mafia money, or even Howard Hughes. Eyewitness accounts sporadically surface. One story said, "Hundreds of soldiers descended to the crash site and closed the river. They guarded the banks of the river while barges came in and pulled the bomber to the surface. The plane was then offloaded to railroad cars, where it was taken to one of the local steel mills and melted down." Variations on these stories included the plane being chopped up on shore and trucked away, threats to eyewitnesses on shore, even the story of a mysterious '7th man' that was pulled from the river.
The story is such a good one that a film production company is thinking about making a movie about the Mystery of the Mitchell Ghost Bomber.
The mystery of the B-25 has endured for more than 50 years. Every two or three years, an article surfaces in local newspapers about the crash, and new eyewitnesses have come forth with "the real story."
The Search Continues for the B-25 Bomber
The search still continues, headed up by an organization called the B-25 Recovery Group made up of an eclectic mix of people with a passion for aviation, boating, waterways, Pittsburgh, and, of course, a good old-fashioned mystery.
John Uldrich, a marketing and management professor, currently teaching in China, heads the group. He has a background in sonar technology, has participated in a number of search and recovery efforts around the world, and has spent much time in Pittsburgh.
Bob Shema, a Pittsburgh native and the group's Operations Director, is a water quality expert. He brings an in-depth understanding of the Mon River and experience with sonar scanning technology to the team. Steve Byers owns a local computer company Sennex in the South Hills, and Matt Pundzak is a consultant from Virginia. Matt, Steve, and John are all experienced pilots.
The group began a detailed and scientific study into the fate of the B-25 in 1995. They carefully pieced together eyewitness accounts from the night of the crash and its subsequent weeks, spent hundreds of hours pouring through documents from government and civil sources, and interviewed experts on everything from water quality in the Mon, to the river bottom, to the design and construction of the Mitchell B-25 bomber. They even conducted flow analysis using models in the Mon River to simulate where the river may have taken the plane.
The result of all this research? Bob Shema, the group's Operations Director, is confident that they have found the final resting place of the aircraft. "We are optimistic that we will be able to solve this mystery," he says. However, the plane had not been located by fall of 2016.
Where Could the Ghost Bomber Be Resting?
Shema believes the plane is sitting under about 10 to 15 feet of silt in 32 feet of water just off of Birds Landing. Birds Landing is across from the old J&L steel mill just west of the Glenwood bridge at mile marker 4.9. It was once a tie-off spot for barges.
When asked how confident he is in this location, Shema related some of the evidence they had accumulated over the past five years.
"There were hundreds of eye-witnesses to the crash," said Shema. The plane went down just east of the Glenwood Bridge (before the Homestead High-Level Bridge) heading up river. Shema goes on to explain that the river was running very fast that day. Five of the six crewmembers climbed onto the wings of the plane as it floated downstream. Shortly after that, the plane sank. Four crewmembers were rescued, and two bodies were recovered downstream, drowned.
The Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard dragged the river repeatedly after the crash. Shema said that accident reports stated the Corps hooked what they believed to be the wing of the aircraft. In the process of bringing it to the surface, however, the anchor slipped off, and the plane sank back in the water. Then, they snagged something else, but in trying to bring it to the surface, the 2" thick cable snapped. Twice. Shema said that there were photos of this operation, and the photos show high tension wires and shoreline features, which are still there today.
"We know exactly where the plane was last seen," Shema said.
He believes the plane was indeed snagged the first time they tried to pull it up, but then when it slipped off, it fell into an open gravel pit at Birds Landing. The next two times, when the cables snapped, Shema thinks that they snagged something else. Birds Landing is home to an old submerged concrete ice breaker. "A 2" thick steel cable requires over 31,000 pounds of force to break," said Shema. "A B-25 weighs half that. One of the few things in the river that could do that is that old concrete ice breaker."
Interviewing the Eyewitnesses
Also, if the plane really was pulled up, loaded on railroad cars or barges, and spirited down the river, there had to be some eyewitnesses. Shema has spent 30 years working on the rivers and has talked to hundreds of people that were on the river that night. "There are just no credible eyewitnesses," Shema said.
He related the story of one witness they interviewed who said he watched divers on a barge, in black suits and flippers, turn off all their lights and go into the water. Shema counters by stating, "The water temperature was 34 degrees. The river was flowing 5-7 knots. The water was three feet high - a mini flood. In the 50's, standard issue for divers was a 155 lb Mark 5 dive suit. The last thing a diver would have under those conditions would be flippers. Sorry, this is not a credible witness."
Another person they talked to was the wife who confessed that her husband was the diver that removed the 'seventh body.' She explained that this was his excuse for not coming home that night.
After spending hundreds of hours going over documents, interviewing eyewitnesses, and conducting flow analysis with models to simulate how far the plane could have traveled downstream, Shema is confident that the plane is still in the river.
Sonar Mapping the Mon
In 1995, the group mapped the bank of the Mon River near Birds Landing using side scan sonar imaging. This confirmed the location of the gravel pit, a deep hole formed many years ago by 'gravel pirates' who dredged the river bottom for gravel. They also found a partially sunken barge. There is another dark image that the group believes is a candidate burial site of the B-25.
To confirm the aircraft's location, the group wants to use a metal detecting magnetometer. This is a non-intrusive device that can detect metal buried under the muck and silt of the Mon River. "This device should provide a picture of what's under Bird's Landing," says Shema. Once they confirm the location, they will take samples from the river bottom and analyze them to confirm that any metal found is identical to that used in the construction of the Mitchell bombers. The cost of renting the equipment and the support effort to use it will require about $25,000.
Shema is confident they will find parts of the aircraft, but the thought of an eerie specter of the Pittsburgh ghost bomber rising from the Mon is doubtful. "We expect to find the engine blocks, landing gear and tires - they were all made to be bulletproof… but the rest of the plane - doubtful." Shema also said that the water quality of the Mon River in the 1950's was poor, at best. Life expectancy of any metal in the Mon's polluted water was 1/3 to ½ that of the Allegheny. "You couldn't keep an outboard motor in the water all year - the propeller would be dissolved in no time.
All the aluminum [of the plane] is expected to be gone, except what may have come in contact with the bottom," Shema said. Four dives have been conducted in the Mon to date, but all they found was wood. "You don't find steel in the Mon, " said Shema.
Searching for History
The B-25 Recovery Group is working with the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania (HSWP) and the Sen. John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center in this effort. Ms. Betty Arenth, senior vice president of the History Cente, is excited to be a part of solving this mystery. "It was natural for us to get involved with Bob [Shema] and the B-25 Recovery Group - it's a part of Pittsburgh's history,"" said Arenth.
Shema said that when they find the plane, any artifacts would be turned over to the History Center. "When we find it, it really is a credit to all of Pittsburgh for the help they have given over the years."
When asked about the conspiracy theories, Shema, a Pittsburgh native, remembers the day the plane crashed. He concedes that "It was the late 50's, at the height of the cold war, and we were surrounded by missile bases. It is comforting to think our military could come in and remove an aircraft with no witnesses." Shema continued, "The four of us would not have invested thousands of hours and significant resources for a wild goose chase. Why would someone put nerve gas, or nuclear weapons on an obsolete aircraft?
The plane was an Air National Guard plane, a trainer. It was due to be retired in 18 months. It was the last day of the month, and these pilots were just trying to get their flight time in."
Shema closed, "This plane simply ran out of gas".
Anyone interested in helping to solve one of Pittsburgh's greatest unsolved mysteries can make a tax deductible contribution to the B-25 Recovery Group. The Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania has established an account for the group. Donations, made out to HSWP can be sent to the following address:
The Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania (HSWP)
Attn. Ms. Betty Arenth - B-25 Project
1212 Smallman Street
Pittsburgh PA 15222