Flight 2501 was a Douglas DC-4 airliner with four Pratt & Whitney, R-2000 Wasp engines. These reciprocating piston, propeller engines could power the converted World War II C54 transport to a maximum airspeed of 280 miles per hour. The flight lifted off on time from New York’s LaGuardia airport at 7:30 p.m. and headed west under clear skies.
The pilot was 35 year old Captain Robert C. Lind of Hopkins, Minnesota. In the right hand seat was co-pilot Verne F. Wolfe, also 35, of Minneapolis. 25-year old stewardess Bonnie Ann Feldman was in the passenger compartment taking care of 55 passengers, identified as 27 women, 22 men and 6 children.
The uneventful flight passed safely over Cleveland, Ohio and continued west toward Minneapolis, Minnesota, a major hub for Northwest Airlines. As the DC-4 passed over Battle Creek, Michigan at 11:51 p.m. eastern time, Captain Lind notified Northwest’s Air Traffic Control Center at Chicago by radio that he estimated passing over Milwaukee at 11:37 p.m. central time. He was flying level at 3,500'.
As the plane reached the lakeshore at 12:13 a.m. EST that evening, Captain Lind, knowing of storms over Lake Michigan, requested clearance from air traffic control to 2,500'. He was denied due to other traffic in the area.
That was the last communication from Flight 2501. Her disappearance marked the largest aviation disaster in world history to that point, and a mystery that remains unsolved still.
On the evening of June 23, 1950, a DC-4 with certification number 10270 and tail-number N-95425, owned by Northwest Airlines and designated Flight 2501, was loaded with 2,500 gallons of fuel, 80 gallons of oil, and 490 lbs of express, and was expecting 55 passengers. The fully loaded craft weighed in at 71,342 pounds, just 58 pounds below the maximum permissible take off weight.
Captain Lind had flown for Northwest Airlines since 1941. He was checked out on DC-4 type aircraft and qualified on the Milwaukee to New York segment five years earlier. He maintained his qualification in DC-4s, logging almost 200 hours on that aircraft, and had flown over the route continuously.
In the 90 days prior to this flight, he had flown 105 hours in DC-4 aircraft and made 15 round trips on the Minneapolis to New York and Minneapolis to Washington routes. Captain Lind also had over 900 hours logged flying solely on instruments. Just 4 months before this flight he completed a Civil Aeronautics Administration physical and he had a total rest period of 24 hours since his last flight. If anyone was prepared for this flight, it was Captain Robert Lind.
Co-Pilot Verne F. Wolfe had been with Northwest Airlines almost as long as Captain Lind had. He was a capable pilot in his own right.
The crew checked in with Northwest flight control operations center at LaGuardia Airport to prepare for the flight. The weather all along the route was carefully checked and a flight plan arranged to avoid unfavorable conditions and bring the plane in on time.
While Lind and Wolfe were taking care of flight preparations and Bonnie Ann Feldman was preparing the cabin, baggage handlers loaded the plane with the passenger’s luggage. The flight crew then ran through their preflight checklist while the passengers boarded.
The engines were geared up one at a time and the plane made its way from the tarmac to the runway. The flight plan called for a cruising altitude of 6,000'feet to Minneapolis. Aware of a storm brewing in the Midwest, Captain Lind requested a cruising altitude of 4,000'. He was denied due to other assigned traffic at that level.
By the time Flight 2501 reached Cleveland, Ohio, at 10:49 p.m. Eastern Time, Captain Lind’s request to drop to 4,000' was approved by Air Route Traffic Control. 40 minutes later the pilot was instructed to drop to 3,500' to avoid an eastbound flight at 5,000', which was experiencing severe turbulence over the Lake. They were expected to pass each other near Battle Creek, Michigan, and the standard separation of 1,000' would not be sufficient due to the turbulence.
By 11:51 p.m. Eastern Time, Flight 2501 had entered the vicinity of the growing storm. Captain Lind reported that he was over Battle Creek at 3,500' and would reach Milwaukee by 11:37 p.m. Central Time. As he neared the lake shore, he made his last transmission, requesting a further drop in altitude to 2,500'. He never stated a specific reason. The request was denied.
On the other side of the lake, just before midnight Central Time, Northwest Radio at Milwaukee advised New York, Minneapolis and Chicago that Flight 2501 was overdue reporting in at Milwaukee. At that point, all Civil Aeronautics Administration radio stations attempted to contact the overdue flight on all frequencies, but to no avail. Northwest air traffic control alerted air/sea rescue facilities to stand by. Flight 2501 was missing.
By dawn, it became clear that the DC-4 had crashed. At 5:30 AM Saturday, June 24, the plane officially was presumed lost, as the fuel supply would have been exhausted by that time. At daybreak, the search and rescue teams began an intense search on the fog covered lake.
At 2:00 a.m. on June 24, 1950, 2 White Fish Bay, Wisconsin policemen were disturbed by what they saw hovering in the sky above Lake Michigan. The men noticed the object several miles out on the lake east-southeast of their position. They watched the eerie red object glowing for ten minutes. Then it disappeared. The UFO report from White Fish Bay, a suburb of Milwaukee, came just two hours after Capt. Lind’s last call to Air Traffic Control.
The US Navy, USCG and State Police from Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana were all involved in the search. 13 hours later, at 6:30 p.m., the USCG, U.S. Coast Guard cutter Woodbine found an oil slick, aircraft debris, and an airline logbook floating in Lake Michigan many miles from shore. At 5:30 a.m. on Sunday June 25, sonar work by the US Naval vessel Daniel Joy near the oil slick revealed several strong sonar targets.
The USCG vessels Woodbine, Mackinaw, Hollyhock and Frederick Lee focused on the recovery of floating debris, which included a fuel tank float, seat cushions, clothing, blankets, luggage, cabin lining and, tragically, body parts. At the time, authorities wanted to determine whether the plane suffered a mid-air explosion, or whether it struck the water intact. These small pieces would be the only clues they had.
Small bits of debris floated endlessly over the surface of the fogbound lake. The airplane, along with 58 men, women & children had disappeared, leaving few clues as to what had occurred 3,500' in the air. The loss of Northwest Airlines Flight 2501 represented the worst commercial aviation disaster to that time.
Initial reports suggested the plane exploded in mid-air, with debris falling into the lake between Glenn and South Haven, Michigan. Officials began discovering debris and body parts Saturday and Sunday over a 4 mile area about 12 miles northwest of Benton Harbor.
Berrien County Prosecutor Louis Kerlikowski and USCG officials initially speculated that the plane may have twisted in the high winds, causing a spark, which ignited the fuel tanks. Kerlikowski stated to the local paper:
It must have been a terrific explosion to disintegrate the bodies so badly.
USCG Captain Nathaniel Fulford said he doubted there was any piece of the wreck big enough to be worth diving for. He actually refused a request by Northwest Airlines to lower a diver into the 200' deep water. According to the Holland Sentinel, Fulford said: I don’t consider it the USCG’s duty to perform recovery duty in this case. It was reported that Northwest then requested a Navy diver.
Captain Carl G. Bowman, skipper of the USCG cutter Mackinaw told the United Press bureau at Detroit by radiotelephone that: Tiny pieces keep floating to the surface all through the area. And his men found hands, ears, a seat armrest and fragments of upholstery. Additionally, the largest piece of wreckage was no bigger than your hand.
A week later, portions of the bodies of two women were discovered, one about two miles north of South Haven and the other about seven miles north, at Glenn, Michigan.
The USCG sent the cutters Mackinaw, Woodbine, Hollyhock and Frederick Lee to the scene over the next few days to assist in the search effort. The cutters were employed to recover as many pieces of floating wreckage as possible and to ferry reporters and officials from shore to the wreck site.
Numerous sensational newspaper reports detailed the recovery of small parts of bodies, clothing, wallets and other personal effects by the USCG. At one point, workers were dipping their hands into the lake to recover body parts. Authorities in South Haven closed the popular South Beach for 9 days after the crash, due to the large number of body parts that washed in among the bathers. It was re-opened on July 3 for the holiday crowds.
A pair of boy’s pants was identified as belonging to 8 year old Chester Schaeffer who was traveling with his mother Mrs. Oscar Schaeffer of Port Chester, New York. A wallet belonging to Frank G. Schwartz of New York City was found to contain papers indicating he was on the way to St. Paul to witness the marriage of his daughter.
On Monday, June 26, 1950, the South Haven Tribune quoted retired U.S Navy man, Lt. Cmdr. R. T. Helm, as saying he had witnessed the plane fly over his home at 12:20 a.m. Minutes later, he said, there was a terrific flash out in the lake. He speculated the pilot was looking for a place to land. He told the United Press: I heard the plane over my home about 12:20 a.m. Saturday. I took a look out of the window and he seemed to be flying pretty low. How low, I don’t know. Helm later was ordered to testify at a hearing in Chicago.
On Tuesday the 27th, the Tribune reported the USCG was conducting dragging operations in an attempt to locate a large enough piece of wreckage to warrant the lowering of hardhat divers to the lake floor. The following day the Navy’s divers spent about 30 minutes searching for wreckage in the dark water.
A week later, one of the newspapers reported: Two divers searched the muddy bottom of the lake for six hours, but found no trace of the missing plane.
It was reported by the divers that they sank into 2' of mud on the lake bottom and that visibility was less than 12". The area searched was about 16 miles north and west of St. Joseph in 150' of water.
The Tribune also quoted a Douglas Aircraft Company investigator as speculating that the plan had turned onto its back and plunged into the lake upside down. He stated there had been 8 cases of this happening in high winds, but that pilots usually were able to pull out of the fall within 6,000'. Since Flight 2501 was flying only at 3,500', the pilot did not have a chance to right the plane before impact.
By Wednesday, June 28, 1950, newspapers were relating sensational eyewitness reports from residents in the Glenn, Michigan area. William Bowie, who operated a restaurant/gas station in the tiny crossroads of Glenn vividly related to the Holland Sentinel the story of how he was sitting in front of his station at 12:15 a.m. on Saturday and saw the plane flew over the area, heard its motors plunk twice, and saw a queer flash of light. He claimed to have 10 witnesses to the incident. Four of them spoke with reporters including Mr. and Mrs. Bowie, Danny Thompson and Arnold Rapp. Bowie was later flown to Chicago to testify during the hearing into the incident.
All were sitting in their cars in front of the gas station waiting for the power to come back on after a fierce lightning storm had caused an outage. They saw the plane approach from the northeast, follow the highway almost to Glenn, then veer west, over the lake. They contend the plane’s engines were not operating properly and one of them reportedly yelled: Bring that plane down here buddy. We’ll fix it up for you.
Thompson stated the plane’s engines sounded like a stock car with a blown head gasket. Bowie reported a funny yellow light trailing from the wing.
Bowie’s wife stated: All of a sudden there was this flash. It was a funny light. It looked like the sun when it goes down. It only lasted a second and then was gone.
Witnesses say the plane was not more than 2,000' off the ground. Other witnesses included 30 year old William Bowie Jr., Mrs. June Herring, Ivan Orr, Leo Dorman and several others.
By Wednesday, July 12, local fisherman Wallace Chambers reported snagging his nets on something approximately 4 miles southwest of South Haven in 72' of water. A small, twisted piece of light metal was pulled up in the net and turned over to the USCG. Later analysis by the Civil Aeronautics Board led to doubts the metal was from the DC-4.
Six months after the loss of Flight 2501, and after careful analysis of the floating remains and communication records, the official cause of the disaster was listed as unknown. No cause for the loss ever was determined. No major piece of wreckage ever was found. Today, Flight 2501 is listed on nearly every UFO web site as a strange anomaly since some in the Wisconsin area reported a bright light over the lake about two hours after the event.