Missing plane mystery continues to deepen

REDRIDGE – The mystery surrounding the disappearance of a National Center for Atmospheric Research plane in 1968 continues to deepen.

The Rev. Arvo Onermaa of Hancock said he was walking near Wolf Point (near the mouth of the Misery River) a couple of years ago when he noticed a piece of metal on shore.

“I wasn’t sure what it was at first,” Onermaa said. “But then I remembered reading a story in the Mining Gazette about a missing plane a couple of weeks ago. I thought there might be a connection, so I notified the sheriff’s office.”

Houghton County Sheriff Brian McLean said the metal part found by Onermaa doesn’t appear to be the same color as one discovered five years ago by a Michigan Tech student near the Houghton break wall.

“It’s made of a heavier metal and doesn’t have the color of the other part,” McLean noted. “But it is possible it could be from another section of a plane …. maybe a part of a pontoon. And it came near a location where other parts have been discovered.”

McLean said the Gazette story on the missing NCAR plane last month prompted another person, Ed Wakeham of Hancock, to send him pictures of a plane part he found five years ago.

Wakeham made the discovery of the large blue-colored part about a quarter-mile inland in Stanton Township in 2008.

“I had seen it many years before then, but when I read a story about another plane part being found (in 2008) I dug it out,” Wakeham said. “There was only a small part of it above the ground.”

The NCAR plane disappeared on Oct. 23, 1968 while collecting water radiation temperatures over Lake Superior. NCAR pilots Gordon Jones and Robert Carew were on board that day with Velayudh Krishna, a graduate student from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The three men made contact with the Houghton County Airport around 12:30 p.m. Shortly afterward, a flash was seen near Redridge by several people.

Obtaining water radiation temperatures required the Queen Air 80 Beechcraft plane to fly approximately 50 feet off the surface.

That’s why some people speculated the plane might have glanced off the old Redridge smokestack, accounting for the flash that was seen.

Former undersheriff Gary Beauchamp said his department inspected the smokestack at the time and even conducted an inland search for the plane.

“Since we hadn’t found anything in the lake …. there was speculation the plane might have crashed inland,” the late Beauchamp said. “But we never found anything.”

Wakeham said he contacted former NCAR pilot Lester Zinser – who was heavily involved in two local searches – and sent pictures of the part he found.

“He (Zinser) told me the part definitely was from an airplane,” Wakeham commented. “Whether he sent the pictures to the National Transportation Safety Board, I don’t know. I never heard back from him.”

Despite a search immediately after the plane disappeared, and a more thorough one nine months later, no trace of three men on board has ever been found.

Noting that most of the plane parts have been found in late fall, McLean feels there is a connection with the weather.

“It’s the time of year when you get the high winds and the water is churned up. The lake seems to kind of be spitting the parts out,” he said. “Maybe John Wiiitanen was right.”

Late sheriff John Wiitanen always theorized the plane went down in an area of Lake Superior which contains deep valleys. He believed the plane became lodged in a valley and that parts would periodically come to the surface.

The passage of time has dimmed memories of the lost NCAR flight. But Onermaa, for one, is hopeful the truth might be known some day.

“It might not come in my lifetime. But for the sake of closure for the families of the men …. I hope the truth does come out,” Onermaa said.

In the meantime, McLean said his department will continue to take evidence on the case.

“It’s still on the record, we’ll accept any information or parts anyone may have,” the sheriff said. “Eventually, we’ll hopefully have a better explanation to what happened.”