The Disappearance Of Northwest Airlines Flight 2501

Published in Midwest Flyer – Oct/Nov 2016

Michigan’s greatest aviation mystery has been lying in wait of discovery at the bottom of Lake Michigan for 66 years.

For more than a decade, Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates (MSRA) has set aside its normal spring expeditions to find broken hulls and twisted rigging and have focused instead on searching for pieces of fuselage and airframe. With support from bestselling author Clive Cussler’s marine group, the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA), this maritime research organization has been searching for the lost wreckage of Northwest Airlines Flight 2501.

Flight 2501 was a Douglas DC-4 piston airliner that took off from LaGuardia Airport, June 23, 1950, bound for Seattle, Washington. While flying over Lake Michigan in an air corridor known to commercial aviators as RED 57, Flight 2501 encountered a squall line of severe thunderstorms and disappeared. The flight never made it to Seattle. It never emerged from the storm. Fifty-eight (58) lives were lost. At the time, it was the worst commercial aviation disaster the nation had ever experienced. And the wreckage was never found.

MSRA directors Valerie and Jack Van Heest surmise that their previous attempts to find the aircraft have gotten them closer and closer to it. By the process of elimination, they have crossed off several sections of their search area, which, based on the aircraft’s flight path and information gleaned from the last radio contacts with the pilot, is several miles off the southwest coast of Michigan, somewhere between St. Joseph and South Haven. As is the case with search operations, knowing where the plane isn’t is just as useful as having a good idea of where it is.

Flight 2501’s elusive debris field and the absence of a definitive explanation for its disappearance after all these years have fueled talk of conspiracy along the way. The degree to which most Michigan residents have forgot this significant and tragic event has led some to whisper of a cover-up. Indeed, reports have actually surfaced in which witnesses describe seeing a tail section of an airplane being secretly brought to shore soon after the crash. Intrigued with the unsolved mystery, Michigan author J. Ryan Fenzel has penned a contemporary thriller revolving around a high-stakes search for the wreckage of Flight 2501. Titled “Allied In Irons” (Ironcroft 2012), the story mixes elements of conspiracy and terrorism with a state-of-the-art hunt for the missing airliner.

Speculation and fiction aside, Valerie Van Heest has written her own non-fiction book on the subject. “Fatal Crossing” (In-depth Editions 2013) chronicles MSRA’s efforts to locate the wreckage of the aircraft. In it, Van Heest aims to bring closure to the tragic event that took 58 souls more than six decades ago. Van Heest believes her book will provide the answers that family members of those on Flight 2501 have been waiting to hear. After compiling her extensive research of the events surrounding the crash, which includes in-depth interviews with family and professional associates of Flight 2501 Captain Robert C. Lind, Van Heest has pieced together a very plausible theory as to what happened to the ill-fated aircraft, and why.

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