Hunt for decades-old plane continues

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

By Paul Peterson

For the Gazette

REDRIDGE – The second search for a missing National Center for Atmospheric Research plane was much more thorough a year after the 1968 incident.

In August of 1969, the effort included NCAR personnel, the sheriff’s department, U.S. Coast Guard and several Michigan Tech student volunteers.

The Isle Royale Queen II was also used to serve as a base of operations in the hunt.

The late Jim Ruotsala was a sheriff’s deputy and the county’s marine officer at the time. He recalled the search effort a few years ago.

“They had the latest in sonar equipment and a lot of other gadgetry on board,” said Ruotsala, who would later be elected sheriff. “It was very well coordinated.”

Despite the intensive effort, which was centered in Lake Superior west of Redridge, nothing conclusive was found.

The late Gary Beauchamp, another deputy at the time, said a land search was even conducted.

“The thinking was that if the plane didn’t go down in the lake, it might have crashed inland somewhere,” Beauchamp noted. “But we never found a trace.”

The search was ended after two frustrating weeks — leaving officials to ponder the fate of the three men on board.

Then sheriff John Wiitanen always believed the search was not conducted in the right area.

“I think the plane went down farther west of the area they were searching in,” Wiitanen commented. “There are a lot of underwater valleys in that area of the lake …. I believe it got lodged in one of those valleys. Eventually, bits and pieces of it will come to the surface and be found by accident.”

That theory has looked good over the past four decades.

In 1972, the late Frank Morin of Freda found what he believed to be a piece of plane fuselage while walking along the beach near the search area.

His son, Jim, said his father called the sheriff’s department about the discovery. But the piece of apparent wreckage was never picked up and remained with the Morin family.

Just four years later, the largest plane part ever found, turned up near Rockhouse Point. That part was a rear horizontal stabilizer discovered by Dana Nakkula.

In 1999, divers found what appeared to be parts of a plane on the Hancock side. National Transportation Safety Board officials were notified of the find, but declined to investigate further.

In late October of 2008, MTU student Justin Hicks was watching large waves on the Houghton Breakers with friends when he noticed something that looked out of place.

“I saw a large piece of metal, so I went out there and picked it up,” Hicks told authorities at the time. “I had no idea what it was.”

The part appeared to be from an airplane. Its color, a light blue, was the same as that of the missing Beachcraft Queen Air plane.

In fact, it was nearly a perfect match in color to the parts that were found by Nakkula and Morin years earlier.

“I think that was very significant,” current county sheriff Brian McLean stated. “The parts found were the same color and they were all found on the same side of the (Portage) canal.”

But the mystery of the missing NCAR flight remains.

Numerous other planes have vanished over the Great Lakes over the years — leading to books and television shows about a so-called Great Lakes Triangle.

The most famous incident came on Nov. 23, 1953 when an Air Force F-89 Jet Interceptor from Kinross AFB disappeared while chasing a UFO over Lake Superior. The jet and the two men on board of it were never found.

Ironically enough, parts from the missing F-89 Interceptor were found in the eastern end of Lake Superior in mid-October of 1968.

Bad weather has contributed to the large majority of the other Great Lakes missing plane cases.

But on the day Jones, Carew and Krishna vanished, the weather was sunny and clear with little or no wind.

A volunteer organization, the Missing Aircaft Search Team, was organized a decade or so ago to look into such cases. Whether it has ever investigated the NCAR incident is not known.

Most of the principle characters involved in the NCAR search have passed on, including Wiitanen, Beauchamp and Ruotsala.

But Lester Zinser, who as was close to the case as anyone, is still alive. Now in his 90s, the former NCAR pilot, is hopeful the truth will one day come out.

“For the sake of the families of the men …. I believe some day the truth will be known what happened that day,” he said a few years ago.