Two buddies solve a 50-year-old mystery.
|We were going down, and not in a good way.
The Ugly Duckling had lost all power. Our plane was flying with no engines, no electrical power of any sort, and, as far as I could tell, not a snowball’s chance of pulling out of this one. My hands hurt. I was holding onto the yoke so hard I could have crushed granite. A lump of coal up my posterior would have produced a gem to rival the Hope Diamond in the matter of seconds that we were falling.
The only sound in the cockpit was Charlie’s cussing, my hyperventilating, and the wind blasting by the windows at Is-This-Trip-Really-Necessary(?) speeds.
The trip began simply enough. Charlie and me had finished a well-deserved vacation visiting friends and family back home in Michigan. We visited the same old haunts, drank with the same people, played on the same pool tables, and even managed to get pulled over on the same back roads (no matter what anyone says about there being no cops on Napier Avenue, don’t believe them). Fortunately, the last event didn’t result in jail, but that’s a story for another time.
We took off for our home in Key West on time. Charlie wanted to make a side trip, however. Being the curious type, he hoped to retrace the route that Northwest Flight 2501 took just prior to disappearing from radar screens on a June evening in 1950.
For the uninformed, Flight 2501 disappeared en route to Seattle from New York, with a stop in Minneapolis. The plane, a DC-4, was well-cared for. The crew experienced. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary on the flight until the plane mysteriously vanished from the radar in Battle Creek, Michigan around midnight. UFO enthusiasts around our part of the country claimed to have seen strange lights just prior to the disappearance of Flight 2501. No matter. There was no evidence to prove otherwise. It took six months for the NTSB to rule that the cause of the crash, if there was one, was unexplained, mainly because of the lack of evidence (ya’ think?).
So, being the idiot type, I agreed with Charlie that we should take the time to retrace the doomed aircraft’s path.
Charlie researched the flight path, speed, wind, weather, etc., down to what the pilots ate just before Flight 2501 went missing. And no, there was no alcohol involved.
“Battle Creek, this is Kilo-One-Two-One-Five-Hotel requesting an altitude change to 2500 feet,” Charlie radioed as we traced the route from Battle Creek to Minneapolis.
“Negative, Kilo-One-Two-One-Five-Hotel. There is a Cessna with some skydivers in your area. Please maintain Eight-Zero-Zero-Zero feet on current heading.”
Charlie turned to me. “Ironic,” he said.
“What do you mean by that?” I asked, glad that I brought my sunglasses, as the setting sun hit me square in the face.
He pondered a moment. “Well, the captain of Flight 2501 requested the same thing and received the same denial.”
“What happened after that?”
“The plane and 58 passengers and crew disappeared without a trace.”
“Nice,” I said. Something seemed a little peculiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. The sun would’ve burned my retinas if not for my Raybans, but the compass had us heading due south. I looked at Charlie. He focused on the ups and downs. I glanced at the compass again, sure I was mistaken. Now it was pointed almost due east. It was after 4 p.m., which meant unless we were located on a different planet, we were headed west. The compass began to spin.
“Uh, Charlie…” I began. Then the engines sputtered. I sighed. Just once I’d like to complete a flight without the Duckling getting indigestion.
“Not now, Alan,” Charlie said with a hint of panic. “C’mon, Baby” he said, unaware he was speaking out loud. Another cough from the engines. Then a stutter. A gasp. A wheeze. Then nothing.
“Grab the yoke and help me keep her aloft,” Charlie said quickly. “There’s no hydraulics, so I need the extra help. Follow my lead.”
I did as I was told. Meanwhile, Charlie frantically called for help.
“Battle Creek, this is Kilo-One-Two-One-Five-Hotel.
Nothing. Not even static.
“Battle Creek, Kilo-One-Two-One-Five-Hotel,” he said more frantically. “BATTLE CREEK, KILO-ONE-TWO-ONE-FIVE-HOTEL!!” he screamed into the mic.
Still no reply.
“SHIT!” Charlie yelled.
Which brings us to our current predicament.
We were going down, and not in a good way.
The Ugly Duckling had lost all power. There were no engines, no electrical power of any sort, and, as far as I could tell, not a snowball’s chance of pulling out of this one. My hands hurt. I was holding onto the yoke so hard I could have crushed granite. A lump of coal up my posterior would have produced a gem to rival the Hope Diamond in the matter of seconds that we were falling.
The only sound in the cockpit was Charlie’s cussing, my hyperventilating, and the wind blasting by the windows at Is-This-Trip-Really-Necessary(?) speeds.
“Would it help if I got out and pushed?” I asked sarcastically.
“It might,“ Charlie countered without missing a beat. I was heartened by the fact that both of us were going to be movie geeks to the last. “There’s a field there just to the right of us,” he said. “We’re going to try to make this landing as painless as possible. Hopefully, the gear will hold and we won’t have to belly in for a landing. Hang tight.”
“I don’t really have a choice,” I replied. Outside of sardonic remarks and screaming like a schoolgirl, there wasn’t much I could do. I opted for the former, as the latter would be considered bad manners.
“When in trouble and in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout,” I said out loud. I couldn’t do any of the above, so I vented. “One of these days I would love it if this hunk of junk would stay in the air more than it does on the ground. What? Is it afraid of heights?”
Amazingly, Charlie ignored me, focusing instead on the field in front of us. Usually, he bristles at any remarks about the Duckling. That’s when I knew our straits were fairly dire. “We’ll try and stall her just short of the ground,” he said. “There’s no hydraulics, so we’ll have to pull back like madmen.
“I’ll do an emergency blowdown of the gear just before we hit in hopes that it will help bleed some speed without ripping it off,” Charlie said over the wind.
As we began our final descent, emphasis on final, I noticed something a little out of the ordinary. Make that a lot out of the ordinary.
“Why is there a guy watching us plunge to our doom in an aluminum rowboat?” I posited aloud.
If Charlie had an answer, he didn‘t speak it. “NOW!” he yelled, and the two of us pulled back with all our might. My soon-to-be-dead best friend struggled to pull the emergency landing gear blowdown handle with his left hand, while the right pulled for all it was worth. Both my hands pulled as though our lives depended on it because…well, they did. The pucker factor was definitely high.
We pulled. Gear extended. We slowed somewhat and glided. Water washed over the windshield as we hit, making me jump. If my belt hadn’t been tight, I would’ve hit the ceiling.
“WTF, OVER!!” Charlie yelled. Momentum carried the Duckling across the pond, but eventually we floated to a stop. The old dude an aluminum boat trolled over to us. Charlie looked puzzled for a second, then he closed his eyes and put his head back against the seat rest. Without looking, his hand found the hidden compartment in his armrest, pulled a pint of SoCo out, unscrewed the cap and downed a good third of the bottle. “Courage,” he said as he offered it to me, still not daring to open his eyes.
I took a couple of deep drinks before handing it back with the appropriate reply. “Courage.”
We sat quietly contemplating life, the universe, and everything. Until, that is, a muffled voice came from Charlie’s side of the plane. He reached over, still not looking, and opened the captain’s window.
“…ell you boys think you’re doing? This is a private lake, and I’d like to keep it that way. I have no use for any goldurn airplane,” I heard.
Charlie rolled his head and looked out. “Believe me, we had no intention of setting down here, sir. We had no choice. The engines quit. See?” To prove his point, Charlie tried to start the right engine. Just to be contrary, the Duckling’s props turned over.
The both of us jumped in our belts. The throaty roar covered any reply from the fisherman. We looked at each other. Puzzlement was an understatement. He shut down.
“…outta here you dang-blasted fools. You’re scaring all my fish,” I heard through the window when the engine finally slowed its RPMs.
“Sir, I’m sorry,” Charlie apologized. “Please allow me to inspect my engines. If everything is okay, I’ll leave.”
Charlie unbuckled and left the flight deck. I knew he would pull out his work raft, his tools, and his A&P license attempting to put a logical spin on what just happened. I, however, just sat. Something seemed queer. And not in a San Francisco kind of way, either. I ran through the last five minutes in my head, from the compass, to the engines, to the landing. Something just didn’t seem right. I looked at the compass. It had quit spinning and pointed dead west. The sun blasting in my eyes let me know the instrument was correct. I contemplated some more, then unbuckled.
Charlie already pulled his raft out and headed for the left engine by the time I reached the cargo hold’s door. The old man had parked his boat underneath the wing, figuring to take advantage of the shade offered by the Duckling. Unfortunately, he happened to be directly in Charlie’s way. I attempted to ease the situation.
“Sir?” I asked. “Where are we?”
“You’re in my grass lake,” the old fart answered while casting without looking at me. “It’s my lake. And it’s a damn fine spot for catching blue gill and bass. It’ll be even better once you two fellers leave here, although the noise will scare the bass for at least two days.”
I thought for a second. “How deep is this lake and how long has it been here?”
“It’s about 100 feet deep and been in my family ever since my great-great-great-great-great-great grandpappy settled this land after the French and Indian War. My family has owned it for forever.”
“Has there ever been any unusual stories attached to it?” I asked.
“Well, there’s the usual lake monster tales attached to it, as well as will ‘o the wisp tales. Plus there’s tales of UFOs and missing airplanes.”
“Could you tell me more about missing airplanes?”
The old man stopped casting for bass and trolled in my direction, earning me a look of thanks from Charlie. My partner, not knowing what I was up to, started opening the Duckling’s cowls. The old fisherman stopped and drifted until he was three feet from me. “What’s in it for me?”
I smiled at his entrepreneurial question, winked and held up a finger. I made my way back to the flight deck and raided Charlie’s secret stash of liquid courage. About a quarter of the bottle remained. I hoped it was enough.
The old fisherman’s eyes lighted up at the sight. He grabbed the bottle and swigged the final drops, shaking the remainder into his mouth.
“The missus don’t like it when I drink,” he said. “If you won’t tell her, I’ll tell you what I know.”
I placed two fingers on my brow Boy Scout style. “Wild buffalo couldn’t drag it out of me,” I said as sincerely as possible.
He winked conspiratorially and began. “When I was a younger man, lesse…my oldest boy was about seven years old and my youngest about two. Both of them good boys. Like two peas in a pod they were. Even though they were five years apart, two closer brothers you could never find. Wherever one was, you could find the other. My oldest joined the Air Force, and my youngest did the same not more than five years later…”
“Could you tell me more about the UFOs and the airplane?” I interrupted, trying to redirect his focus.
“Wha? Oh, yeah, right,” said the old man. “When my sons were very young I used to take them fishing on this here lake. Anyhow, one night I saw a flash while sitting on our front porch. I called Joe Garski, the county sheriff. He came by to ask what I’d seen. I told him, but he didn’t believe me. He told me I was drinking too much and imagined what I saw. But I know what I’d seen. I was stone-cold sober. Like I said, the missus don‘t allow it.”
I had a thought, crazy though it was. “At the risk of sounding like a Clive Cussler novel, is there anywhere on this lake where lures get eaten on a regular basis?” I asked.
“Never mind,” I said. “Is there a spot on this lake that takes a lot of lures from you?”
He pointed to a spot to the east. “There,” he said.
“Is there any place where I can rent SCUBA gear?”
“Don Davis owns a place in town. If ya want, for a price, I can get some for you.”
I said that I would love it if he could get two sets of gear and some underwater lights, for a price, of course. I handed him a few bills with Pres. Andy Jackson’s face on them and asked him to stop somewhere to refill our courage bottle as well. “If you find a good 2 for 1 deal,” I said conspiratorially, “I’ll never know, especially if you lose the receipt.” The old man smiled widely. “I know just the place,” he said.
Charlie was nearly finished with the driver’s side motor, claiming ignorance as to why it quit. “I have an idea, but I’m not sharing until the old fisherman comes back with what I need,” I said. Charlie just shrugged and lay down on the floor of the cargo area. He’d dragged me along on enough of his hair-brained adventures that he knew better than to argue. An hour before sunset the old man showed up, his boat weaving a little. I nudged Charlie, who was snoring loudly on the cargo deck. His expertise had found nothing wrong with either engine during his inspection. Both had checked out without any glitches and started without a hiccup.
“I have a hypothesis, but I need you to help make it a fact,” I said when he sat up. “Let’s get this gear on.”
Charlie shrugged and began donning the SCUBA gear. “If you say so,” he said. It’s nice to know you have a friend that will follow you, no matter what, no questions asked. Charlie’s one of those friends.
The days last rays strayed across the heavens when we finished donning our gear. The fisherman trolled us to the spot. I looked at Charlie.
“You ready to make history?” I asked before letting Newton’s theory propel me into the depths (ie. gravity works, especially with a weighted belt around one‘s waist). I switched on my dive light as soon as I righted. Charlie followed almost immediately after. Down, down, down we swam. The old man was right about the fishing, though. Dozens of nice pan-sized blue gill, perch, and the occasional monster bass swam lazily through my beam. Deeper we traveled, the light leading the way.
Even though I was expecting it, I started when the tail of an airplane rose out at us like a ghost. It was covered with fishing lines and lures; the old man must have lost a fortune in gear. The vertical stabilizer of Flight 2501 stood as straight as the day it hit the water. I shuddered. For some reason, man-made objects under water, especially passenger craft like ships and planes, gave me the heebee geebees. Seeing something so big an powerful as an airplane in its current position is a wake-up call to the true insignificance of man.
The light played along the fuselage. It hit a window and muffled scream came from my vicinity. A skeletal face showed, mouth open grotesquely. The head was smallish. There were six children aboard the flight, and I could only guess that the body belonged to one of them. I couldn’t imagine the final minutes of the flight, but I could sympathize. I was terrified that Charlie and me were going to buy the farm during our own emergency. Fortunately, I was wrong about our fate. Of course having a flying boat made it easier to land on water. But still, these people had no choice.
My mind registered the thought of 58 people going to their graves without a prayer. I paused for a second and performed the best blessing I knew. A tap on Charlie’s shoulder let him know to head topside
My head hit the surface and the cool Michigan night air filled my lungs after I spit out the mouthpiece. The thought of all those lost souls tore at my heart, as well as made it thump a bit faster. The only way to lay them to rest was to notify the NTSB.
Charlie and me were proclaimed heroes for finding the remains of Flight 2501. Numerous calls came in to us for interviews. Charlie shuffled them my way and I denied television and radio bits, mainly because most electronic media personalities are morons. I did do a couple of interviews with local papers and one for National Geographic.
For some inexplicable reason the Duckling ran as prescribed, even exceeding expectations in some areas when we started it. The old man made a fortune charging folks to dive on his lake. The Discovery Channel did an episode of Deep Sea Detectives on the airplane and the area, making it even more of a money-making proposition for the owner and his family.
The final conclusion is Flight 2501 met the same problem we did and landed in the same way, without our result, however. I placed a kiss on the pinup girl on our nose for being a flying boat. UFO theorists went a step further, citing magnetic anomalies and magical lines of force covering the area. Other geniuses trotted out the Mysterious Triangle horse, going on about an area like the Bermuda Triangle being in the area. The lot of them were off their nut, as far as I was concerned.
Overall, the whole experience frightened, enlightened, and entertained. My best friend (and his plane) may be a pain in the ass, but I’ll tell you what…there is no shortage of excitement.