For The Tribune-Democrat
Imagine you are driving home from work around 4 p.m. on a cold January afternoon. As you enter the bridge crossing the river you see a vintage World War II bomber, a B-25 Mitchell, come out of nowhere and fly over this bridge, clearing the bridge by about 30 feet. The plane splash lands in the frigid river, and boats scamper to the plane, rescuing four of the six men. During the next few weeks divers search in vain for the sunken bomber.
Conspiracy theories abound, the plane now dubbed the “ghost bomber.”
What sounds like a mystery novel was, in fact, a real life incident, occurring 58 years ago this week, on Jan. 31, 1956, in the city of Pittsburgh.
It is a story that has fascinated history buffs as well as aviation and maritime experts over the ensuing decades.
This Cold War era incident also has fascinated conspiracy theorists with stories of a “seventh man” onboard not accounted for (of the crew of six, four were rescued; two drowned in the icy waters of the Monongahela River), who some claim was millionaire aviation expert Howard Hughes.
Stories also abound that the plane was carrying nuclear material on its trip to Harrisburg before the plane had to ditch in the “Mon” (as folks dub the Monongahela) after running out of fuel.
The plane’s flight originated in Nevada, and its destination was Harrisburg. It was picking up airplane parts.
The bomber was being used as a “trainer,” and due to be retired in 18 months. The crew was trying to get some flight time in.
After stops in Oklahoma and Michigan, the bomber headed to Harrisburg. Over western Pennsylvania the pilot noticed they were rapidly losing fuel.
After considering landing in smaller airports like Johns-town, the plane headed to the Allegheny Airport.
Unfortunately, the fuel ran out before then, and both engines stopped in Pittsburgh, necessitating the emergency landing in the river.
The rescue was perilous at best. The crew climbed onto the aircraft’s wings to stay afloat, waiting to be rescued.
However, the plane sank 15 minutes after floating down the river.
The icy water was 34 degrees, and running about 5 to 7 knots.
After two weeks of searching, the military called off trying to retrieve the sunken aircraft.
However, stories remain to this day of a covert military operation at night that brought the bomber to the surface, dismantled the aircraft in pieces and hauled the parts off on either barges and/or railroad cars to various military bases.
These stories fuel the conspiracy theorists and their stories of what the secret cargo was aboard the bomber.
However, if the plane is still in the Monongahela, its location has been approximated near a point called Bird’s Landing, in a gravel pit at the bottom of the river.
The location is estimated to be 150 feet from shore, in 32 feet of water, under 10 feet to 15 feet of silt.
Adding to the challenge, a recovery group dedicated to recovering the plane stated that the polluted waters of the Mon back in the 1950s would have most certainly corroded and dissolved the metal fuselage of the plane, with very few pieces of the bomber surviving the river over the decades.
A Pittsburgh–based recovery group declared about 20 years ago it would cost $25,000 to rent salvage equipment to find and raise the remains of the bomber.
No doubt the cost would have risen in the ensuing years.
And so the “ghost bomber” remains entangled in a web of mystery and intrigue since 1956.
Did the military bring the plane to the surface one cold winter’s night back in 1956 and spirit the bomber away? Was the mysterious “seventh man” really Howard Hughes? Was the cargo aboard nuclear weapons or something else highly classified? Could Pittsburgh really have disappeared if nuclear weapons had accidentally gone off in the bomber?
The majestic Mon continues to hold those secrets from us as this mysterious chapter in Pittsburgh’s history remains unsolved beneath its murky waters.
Bill Eggert is a Johnstown resident. He writes an occasional column.