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Crews Continue Search for Missing Northwest Flight More than 60 Years Later

Updated: 07/30/2015 3:23 PM
Created: 06/24/2014 10:51 PM KSTP.com
By: Tom Hauser

It's one of the most enduring aviation mysteries of all time.

No, we're not talking about the disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines jet in March. It's the crash of Northwest Flight 2051 on June 24, 1950.

The DC-4 was flying from New York City to Minneapolis before scheduled stops in Spokane and Seattle. The plane flew into a severe thunderstorm over Lake Michigan just past South Haven, Michigan. It was last heard from on a radio call just after midnight on June 24.

The pilot was 35-year old Captain Robert C. Lind of Hopkins, Minn. In the right hand seat was co-pilot Verne F. Wolfe, also 35, of Minneapolis. Twenty-five-year old stewardess Bonnie Ann Feldman was in the passenger compartment taking care of 55 passengers, identified as 27 women, 22 men and six children.

The plane has never been found and the cause of the crash has never been determined. The Civil Aeronautics Board "accident investigation report" in 1951 found that the crash during a thunderstorm "probably resulted from either a structural failure caused by the turbulence, or because control of the plane was lost." However, the report concluded there was "not sufficient evidence from which the probable cause of this accident can be determined."

Over the next several days after the crash small pieces of debris, clothing, a suitcase and other personal items were found by search crews. So were dozens of body parts.

Remarkably, the search for the plane resumed in 2004. On the 64th anniversary of the crash, 5 Eyewitness News went out on Lake Michigan with a search team to learn more about why they continue their efforts.

The driving force behind the recent search efforts has been Valerie van Heest of the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association.  She's also written a book about Flight 2501 called "Fatal Crossing" and created an exhibit about the crash at the Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven. Van heest and her husband Jack continue search missions whenever weather conditions permit in the spring and early summer. 

"You've got hours and hours of complete boredom punctuated by an occasional second of excitement only to realize, nope, that's not it," Jack Van heest told 5 Eyewitness News on a recent trip out onto Lake Michigan on the 64th anniversary of the crash. Valerie van Heest notes they have found nine shipwrecks while searching for Flight 2501. 

So far they've covered 300 square miles of a 400-square mile search area they mapped out using Coast Guard log books from a search in 1950, expert analysis of how debris might have drifted and eyewitness accounts.  Valerie says they won't give up easily.  "We recognized there are still hundreds of people alive today who knew these victims and they want answers," she says.  "It's for them that we keep going." 

The Coast Guard gave up its search after just five days in 1950. The crash of the plane didn't make headlines for long.  The Korean War started the day after the accident.

NWA Flight 2501 Official Accident Report

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