The Missing Ghost Bomber Of Pittsburgh

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The Mystery

In the mid-1950s, a World War II-era bomber, now dubbed the “Ghost Bomber,” sank into a small, sleepy Pittsburgh river and vanished without a trace. It was never seen again…or was it? 

Background

On Jan. 30, 1956, a North American B-25 Mitchell bomber departed Nellis Air Force Base (AFB) in Nevada on a mission to pick up aircraft parts at Olmsted AFB in Pennsylvania and deliver a couple of passengers to Andrews AFB in Maryland. The crew onboard included Major William Dotson, Captain John Jamieson, Captain Steve Tabak, Staff Sergeant Walter Soocey and Airman Second Class Charles Smith, as well as their passengers, Captain J.P. Ingraham and Master Sergeant Alfred Allement. They made a couple of stopovers, one for an overnight at Tinker AFB in Oklahoma and another for fuel the next day at Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Michigan. At Selfridge, they were informed that it would be several hours before fuel could be delivered. Estimating that they only needed about half of their current fuel supply, around 375 gallons, to make it to Olmsted, they decided to skip the wait and took back off. Captain Tabak stayed behind. 

Things proceeded uneventfully until suddenly, the fuel supply on the plane began to plummet at an abnormal rate. When the B-25 was 17 nm northeast of Pittsburgh, Major Dotson, the pilot at the time, requested clearance to land at the Greater Pittsburgh Airport (now Pittsburgh International) but quickly realized he wouldn’t make it. Instead, he opted for Allegheny County Airport, 15 nm miles southeast of his position. A few minutes after he was cleared, both engines died. Co-pilot Captain Jamieson transmitted a “Mayday,” and Major Dotson, out of options, aimed for the nearby Monongahela River.

Rush hour traffic on Homestead Grays Bridge came to a standstill as dozens stopped to watch the B-25 bomber buzz by overhead. With his wing flaps lowered and wheels-up, Major Dotson perfectly executed a downstream water landing. Apparently, he barely made a splash.

But it was hardly a time to celebrate, as the plane was now a sinking ship on which the crew and passengers were stranded. The temperature of the water was only 35° Fahrenheit, and the shoreline was hundreds of feet away, so swimming to safety wasn’t an option. Informed that a commercial riverboat was about 15 minutes from their position, they were advised to remain with the aircraft. Four of the men obeyed this order and were successfully rescued, but two of the men, Captain Ingraham and Staff Sergeant Soocey, decided to brave the icy waters. Sadly, they didn’t make it. 

Recovery Operation

The recovery mission began on the Monongahela bright and early the following morning. The Mon, as locals called it, was approximately 20 to 25 feet deep. The aircraft, on the other hand, was 15 feet high. This meant that locating it should have been fairly quick and easy, as its top would have only been about 5-10 feet underwater. Within hours, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter, the Forsythia, latched onto what was believed to be one of the aircraft’s wings. It slipped off and sunk back into the river before the cutter could pull it out. 

Thinking for sure they’d get another hit, they spent days and days dredging and diving. After two weeks of repeatedly coming up empty, they finally called it quits. The U.S. Air Force sold the salvage rights to a local seaplane pilot for $10. Neither he, nor any others, ever found a trace of the bomber. 

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Buried in the River

It seems beyond bizarre that nothing from the aircraft has ever been recovered, not so much as an airframe fragment or even a simple compass. One possibility is that when they were dredging for the aircraft, a hook, anchor or some other dangling apparatus somehow snagged it and pushed it down into the sediment below, effectively burying it. Another thought is that once underwater, the plane continued floating downstream and eventually ended up in the much larger, deeper Ohio River, approximately 6 miles up. On the day of the crash, the Mon was flowing at 12 mph.

Secretly Recovered

Shortly after midnight on the night of the crash, dozens of locals claimed to have witnessed the bomber being pulled from the river. They noted that one of the wings appeared to be missing and watched as it was loaded onto a flatbed truck and hauled away. In 1976, a whistleblower came forward, seemingly to substantiate this story. He said he was one of several truck drivers the government paid to tow the plane to a Nike missile site in Oakdale, just 1.3 miles east of Pittsburgh. 

But why would the government need to retrieve the aircraft secretly in the first place? Some speculate that it held top-secret cargo or perhaps even a high-ranking individual whose identity they couldn’t risk being exposed.

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Corroded Away

It’s easy to understand why the conspiracy theories are so popular on this one because, seriously, how does an aircraft that big vanish into a river that shallow? But a middle-of-the-night recovery operation would have been a significant effort, involving a large crew, lots of lighting and more hours of labor than could have been squeezed into the night. 

More likely is that the plane somehow became embedded in the river’s bottom, was hidden away by sediment, and corroded away over the years. At this point, all that’s likely to remain of the largely aluminum aircraft are perhaps its steel engines and landing gear. While some modern investigators continue to search for the plane in hopes of finding even the smallest fragment, so far, even all the modern bells and whistles are no match for the ever-elusive Ghost Bomber of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Do you want to read more Mysteries of Flight? Check out “The Big Sky Theory Of Traffic Avoidance.”

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