Still a mystery after 45 years

Editor’s note: The following is the first of a two-part story on the disappearance of a National Center for Atmospheric Research plane in the Houghton County area in October of 1968.


For the Gazette

REDRIDGE – It’s a case that has intrigued investigators for the past 45 years.

The disappearance of a National Center for Atmospheric Research aircraft on Oct. 23, 1968, remains on the records of the Houghton County Sheriff’s Department to this day.

“It’s an open case and we’re still taking information on it,” Sheriff Brian McLean said recently. “As far as mystery and intrigue goes … this case has it.”

Three men were on board the Beechcraft Queen Air 80 plane that fateful day in late fall of 1968. They were NCAR research pilots Gordon Jones and Robert Carew and University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate student Velayudh Krishna.

Their assignment was to collect water radiation temperatures from Lake Superior. It was something they had done numerous times, according to Lester Zinser, a NCAR pilot at the time.

“There was nothing unusual about the flight,” Zinser commented a few years ago. “They were all quite familiar with the assignment.”

Jones, Carew and Krishna departed from Madison, Wis. that morning. Their last contact was made with the Houghton County Airport around 12:30 p.m.

A bright flash was spotted not long afterward by some residents in the Redridge area. The plane and its occupants were never seen again.

Two teenage girls said many years later they saw a plane plunge into the water near the Hancock Breakers about the same time. Their sighting was never confirmed.

The event, while evoking instant curiosity, didn’t create too much of a media storm.

The Daily Mining Gazette had a story on Page 2 the following day. Local radio stations also ran stories on their broadcasts.

During that troubled year of assassinations, race riots and the Vietnam War, there was another news story in the Copper Country grabbing the headlines.

The Calumet & Hecla Mining Company had halted operations that August because a labor dispute and would never reopen. When C&H officially closed the next year, it marked the end of copper mining in the area.

Still, the disappearance of the NCAR aircraft story picked up steam the following two weeks.

The late John Wiitanen was the Houghton County Sheriff and headed the local investigation.

In a 1989 interview, Wiitanen said very little evidence showed up in subsequent searches.

“We picked up a seat cushion or two and there was some flotsam in the water,” Wiitanen said. “But there wasn’t much else.”

Zinser, who had worked with the three missing men, was sent immediately to the area by the NCAR (now known as the National Transportation Safety Board) to conduct a search. The U.S. Coast Guard was also involved in the effort.

But the search efforts were hampered when the weather — as it often does in the Upper Midwest in late fall — suddenly turned bad.

On one of those bad weather days, the county’s amphibious vehicle almost capsized while being involved in the search.

The late Gary Beauchamp, a sheriff’s deputy at the time, said the incident with the amphibious vehicle helped to shorten search efforts.

“It came pretty close to being a tragedy of its own,” Beauchamp recalled. “I think everyone agreed it was best to shut it down until the following year.”

The following months saw many theories arise over the fate of the lost flight.

Those included glancing off the old mine smokestack in Redridge; being accidentally shot down by U.S. Air Force planes because it entered a no-fly zone; and even running afoul of an Unidentified Flying Object.

Wiitanen completely discounted the latter two theories, but said his department did check the smokestack for damage.

“We had someone go up (the stack) and check it out,” he said. “But there wasn’t any sign of recent damage.”

The search would resume the following summer with a well-financed and organized effort that would include utilizing the Isle Royale Queen II.

Tomorrow: The 1969 search for the missing plane and the aftermath, which has seen several plane parts being found over the years.