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Fish Or Cut Bait

The Case of the Disappearing Bomber
by Bob Ciminel


August 19, 2004

January 31, 1956 drew to a close as most mid-winter days do in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was 27 degrees with a 10-knot wind out of the northwest creating a 10-degree wind chill. The steel mills stretched out along the banks of the Monongahela River began casting an orange glow into the sky, periodically punctuated by the brilliant white light of the Bessemer converters turning molten iron into molten steel. For the crew and passengers aboard U.S. Air Force bomber 44-29125, a B-25N twin-engine "Mitchell" winging its way eastward, the day would end in tragedy.

jpg  B-25

B-25 44-29125 departed Tinker AFB, near Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, at 8:53 a.m. Eastern Time on the second leg of a two-day flight from Nellis AFB, northeast of Las Vegas, Nevada to Andrews AFB near Washington, DC. With 975 gallons of high-octane aviation fuel in its tanks, and cruising at 7,000 feet and 230 mph, the plane had more than enough fuel to reach the next refueling stop at Selfridge AFB, 30 miles north of Detroit. Upon arriving at Selfridge, however, the crew learned that it would be three hours before ground personnel could refuel the plane.

Given the current weather conditions and an estimated 375 gallons of fuel remaining in the tanks, the crew calculated that the plane had more than enough fuel to make the one hour and 40 minute flight from Selfridge to Olmstead AFB, near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where they were scheduled to land and pick up some aircraft parts before continuing on to Andrews AFB. Confident that the fuel situation was under control, the crew departed Selfridge at 2:43 p.m. on a southeasterly heading toward Pittsburgh

The flight was uneventful until the B-25 was approximately 17 miles northeast of the Greater Pittsburgh Airport. The crew noticed that the fuel gauge readings had changed for the first time since leaving Selfridge. Puzzled, but not worried, the crew continued flying eastward another 31 miles beyond the Pittsburgh airport. At this point, the crew saw a rapid drop in the fuel gages. They showed only 120 gallons of fuel left in the tanks. The crew radioed Greater Pittsburgh Airport, announcing their intentions to return for an emergency landing.

The plane made a 180-degree turn and descended to 3,000 feet for a visual approach to the airport. As they approached the city, the crew altered course slightly to the south to avoid heavily populated areas. However, they soon realized they would not reach Greater Pittsburgh Airport, and decided to try for a landing at Allegheny County Airport, which was off to their left and closer to their current position. At approximately 4:10 p.m., both
jpg B-25 prior to ditching
engines ran out of fuel and the crew prepared to ditch in the Monongahela River. River conditions were typical for mid-winter, a 10-knot current and 35-degree water temperature.

The accident report never discusses the skill of the pilot, but he had to be exceptional. The Homestead High Level Bridge, 110 feet above the river, was directly in the plane's path. One mile downstream was a 50-foot high railroad bridge. There was a 10-knot cross wind. The river curved to the north, and was only 500 to 1,000 feet wide. The pilot was able to thread the needle and set the plane down in mid-channel, halfway between the two bridges and with no injuries to the four-man crew or its two passengers.

The plane stayed afloat for approximately 15 minutes, which was ample time for the crew and passengers to get out and swim to large pieces of debris floating nearby. All but two of the plane's occupants were rescued. One passenger and one crew member disappeared into the river and were not seen again. A coordinated search and rescue effort began immediately, but the missing personnel were not found. The next day, Air Force, Coast Guard, and local authorities began dragging the river to recover the plane. This went on for about two weeks using salvaging equipment borrowed from the Army Corps of Engineers, but the plane was never recovered. Or, at least that's the Air Force's story. Various witnesses say the plane was recovered, crated up and shipped out in the dead of night, but to this day the plane and its mission have remained shrouded in mystery.

Rumors were rampant: The plane was swallowed up by a vast underground river that flows beneath the city. The plane was recovered, but the Air Force kept it a secret. The passengers were aliens being transported to Washington from Roswell, New Mexico. The plane was carrying a top secret fuse assembly for nuclear weapons.

jpg Capt. Jack Ross

There is a very simple answer to the plane's disappearance. In 1956, the Monongahela River flowed through one of the largest coal producing areas in the world. There were thousands of abandoned and flooded coal mines within the river's watershed, and the river received in millions of gallons of acid mine drainage as it wound its way through northern West Virginia and southern Pennsylvania. Already acidic, the river then passed through the heavily industrialized towns and cities around Pittsburgh before entering the city's Southside. There were no environmental protection laws in 1956; industrial facilities could dump anything into the river. The steel mills lining the river used millions of gallons of concentrated hydrochloric acid to remove mill scale and corrosion from their steel, and the used acid was dumped into the Monongahela River. Given the high levels of acid in the river, B-25 44-29125 probably dissolved and became a pile of sludge swept along by the current.

Admittedly, this theory may seem a bit far fetched. A concerted underwater search in 1995 using side-scanning sonar picked up something purported to be the missing B-25 in the bottom of an old gravel pit dredged in the river bottom, but it could have been one of the thousands of coal barges that have sunk in the river over the past century. Nine years later, the B-25 is still missing, and no one has come up with a more plausible explanation than the acid corrosion theory. Someday, this 48-year old mystery will be solved and Pittsburghers will finally learn what happened to their missing bomber.


Bob Ciminel ©2004
All Rights Reserved

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