By: Dirk Septer - © 2008 -
The year 1950 did not start out very well for the U.S. Air Force. During the first seven weeks, they lost at least six of their aircraft, including a B-36 intercontinental bomber and their first nuke.
The worst incident involved a Douglas C-54D transport carrying 44 persons, including a woman and her infant son. Bound to its home base at Biggs Airfield, El Paso, Tex., the four-engine aircraft disappeared without a trace somewhere between Anchorage, Alaska and Great Falls, Mont. Despite an intensive air search the military transport was never officially found.
According to the filed flight plan, the aircraft would fly over Whitehorse, Y.T. At 15:09 PST about two hours out of Elmendorf, the Skymaster reported over Snag, the tiny weather station settlement in the Yukon 113 air miles north of Edmonton, Alta. This was the last message received from the aircraft.
One hour after its failed ETA, arrangements were made to start “Operation Mike,” code name for the air search for the missing transport. A Canadian search headquarters was set up in Whitehorse. With some coming from as far away as Ontario and Texas, every available aircraft was flown up to partake in the immense search.
Often flying in poor weather conditions, the search continued day after day. At its height, some 85 search aircraft were criss-crossing the Yukon and northern British Columbia. This search operation would become the largest and most costly ever carried out in the Pacific Northwest. More than 350,000 square miles were searched. Over 7,000 people were involved in the search that ran a tab of $1 million in 1950-dollars.
Fresh snow on January 27 hampered the first day of the search. Heavy icing conditions were reported in the search area. Snow, almost falling continuously for the next three days lessened the chances for an early discovery. The bad weather kept some aircraft from taking off and also made spotting of the aircraft or its remains much more difficult.
There was, however, no lack of reports of people seeing smoke signals, flares, or crashes and explosions heard. The most promising area seemed around Watson Lake, Mile 635 on the Alaska Highway. After a number of reports came in of flares seen in this locality, the initial search was concentrated here.
Although the aerial search initially concentrated along the aircraft’s Alaska Highway flight route, a region known as the “graveyard” of many aircraft en route to Russia during World War II, the search also spread to the Vimy district, Alta. Here, schoolchildren had reported spotting a low-flying aircraft. Some of them reported seeing an aircraft at 9 p.m. (8 p.m. PST) on January 26.
The only new clue received on January 28 was the report of a Yukon forest ranger who said he saw a large aircraft on the afternoon of January 26 flying at about 6,000 feet near Minot, Y.T. He said he heard a “dull thud” shortly after the aircraft disappeared from sight.
On January 30, the search concentrated on an area 40 miles from Whitehorse, where an explosion was reported heard about the time the aircraft went missing on January 26. The U.S. Air Force aircraft that reported hearing faint radio signals the previous night in the Yukon area, failed to hear any repetition of signals on its return flight on February 1.
Early in February, two more radio signals, one of them a reported voice transmission were received. They were picked up on the night of February 1-2 in the Smith River area. Hereon February 1, a second signal was picked by a ground station, which picked up signals on a distress band as a series of ‘vvv’s and ‘zzz’s thought to be coming in on a ship-to-shore system.
Search aircraft were also checking another report that of smoke clouds in the vicinity of Teslin, Y.T., 80 miles southeast of Whitehorse. However, all they had found was some vapour clouds rising from an ice fault in the vicinity.
On February 2, five Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) search aircraft were sent to the Cariboo country of British Columbia. Flying out of Vancouver, the four Cansos and a Lancaster covered the Beaver Lake area. This was in response to a report from a local settler at Beaver Lake, 40 miles northeast of Williams Lake, who had heard a large aircraft apparently in trouble pass over his cabin on January 26, the day the C-54 went missing.
On February 4, American troops were posted at two points south of Haines Junction on the Alaska Highway. Monitoring the 500 Kc frequency used for radio distress signals, they hoped to find new clues about the whereabouts of the missing C-54. Listening posts were established in locations where earlier that week voice and code messages were reported heard on emergency frequencies.
Poor flying weather again hampered the air search. Though four RCAF aircraft of 12 Group managed to take off at noon on February 5, the adverse weather forced them all to return to Vancouver. The next day was a mixed success.
On the evening of January 26 and the next day, reports also came in from northern Montana and the east Kootenays. Several witnesses reported sightings of flares and signal fires from the Sparwood and Revelstoke regions in the Kootenay-Columbia area. A large explosion was reported heard near Sheep Creek, while other messages were received from Cranbrook and Waldo.
The most convincing information came from Newgate, right on the Canada-U.S. border southeast of Cranbrook. Here a large aircraft was seen that seemed to be in trouble and disappearing and possibly crashing near Gold Mountain. The only problem was that it would have been impossible to see the aircraft here during daylight hours.
On February 2, a Canadian Pacific Airlines’ pilot reported seeing smoke signals while flying over the area south of Elko. Thinking these signals were possibly from the missing C-54, he turned the information over to the B.C. Provincial Police.
U.S. Air Force officials stated that a government road foreman at Waldo, also reported to the B.C. Provincial Police seeing smoke signals. Late on February 2, he had observed three definite large smoke puffs with an intermission. Then this procedure would have been repeated at intervals.
Although the probability that the rumoured smoke signals could have come from the lost Skymaster was considered slight, the U.S. Air Force left no clue uninvestigated. On February 2, their aircraft covered the entire area from Waldo to the U.S. border over Gold Mountain halfway westwards to Yakh. Criss-crossing on a route from the line up to Waldo, perfect visibility allowed them even to see animal tracks in the snow.
However, with snow in that area some 4-5 feet deep, there was no indication of any wreckage seen from this aircraft and no ground search party was employed. The smoke seen was definitely established as coming from known logging camps in the area.
On February 6, RCAF search aircraft flew out of Vancouver combing areas in Lower British Columbia for clues to the whereabouts of the missing aircraft. Clear and cold weather made for better search conditions.
On February 7, there were again no aerial searches due to weather. Though two Cansos, a C-47 Dakota and a Ventura aircraft did some searching on February 8, they all returned to base before completing their missions. An average of three aircraft completed searches on February 9 and 11. The next two days, February 12 and 13, only one C-47 did aerial searches in the Prince George area.
Search commanders, however, stated that they did not expect the main effort to be shifted from the Yukon area. They still believed that the C-54 went down somewhere between Whitehorse and Snag. Unfavourable weather grounded the aircraft on February 7. Search aircraft moved from Fort St. John to Whitehorse to concentrate on the area between Snag and Whitehorse.
A snowstorm on February 10 held down the aircraft from the search. As the search neared the end of the fifteenth day since the aircraft disappeared, the RCAF at Edmonton received new reports of distress signals in the B.C-Alaska area.
Around February 10, distress signals continued to be received from a point near the Yukon-B.C. border, which might be of the survivors of the missing aircraft. But still no trace of it had yet been sighted. As the distress calls continued being received, special radio sets were set up to monitor distress signals in the search area.
On February 14, 12 Group discontinued their search for the C-54 on until the termination of the B-36 emergency. Between February 2-14, 12 Group had flown a total of 175 hours and 55 minutes on the C-54 search.
More than a year later, on the afternoon of April 3, 1951, an U.S. Air Force C-47 transport landed at the small Quesnel airport. The military arrived out of the blue with a jeep aboard the aircraft. Early next day, some of the crew left by road on a “survey” of the Puntzi Lake area northeast of Tatla Lake. They were expected back at Quesnel on April 6.
The local newspaper reported, 'the arrival was noted with interest' and that the reason of the visit was unknown. Although this would have been quite a newsworthy event for this remote settlement on the old Cariboo Highway, for some reason there was no further reference of this reported “visit.” Were they possibly looking for that missing C-54?
In response to the C-47 visit to Puntzi Lake, Steven G. Goodwin, Maj, USAF (retired)
wrote me in June 2012:
"I wonder if that visit was just to check out the area. A defensive radar installation was built on Puntzi Mountain in the 1950's. Maybe it was just a visit to see if the location would be acceptable for that installation."