You don’t hear about it as often these days, but a few decades ago, the mystery of the Bermuda Triangle and the peril it posed to travelers was quite the hot topic. While Pittsburghers may have been intrigued about the legendary area off the coast of Florida where ships and planes inexplicably disappeared, many may not have realized that we may have our own Bermuda Triangle right here in Western Pennsylvania as illustrated by the mystery of the Ghost Bomber.
On January 31, 1956, a B-25 Bomber crash-landed into the Monongahela River, and the plane was never to be seen again. Maj. William Dotson and his five other crew members were flying from Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada to Olmstead Air Force Base in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to pick up a cargo of airplane parts. What was to be a routine flight ended in death, disaster, and mystery, giving birth to the legend of the Ghost Bomber.
The plane exhibited no mechanical difficulties when it refueled at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma and again at Selfridge Air Force Base in Michigan, but before the plane could land at its destination, the plane’s crew reported that it was losing fuel. Near 4 p.m., Maj. Dotson requested permission to land at Greater Pittsburgh Airport. When he realized the plane did not have enough fuel to reach that airport, he requested to land at Allegheny County Airport.
At 4:11, the plane ran out of fuel and the engine malfunctioned, giving Maj. Dotson no option but to land in the Monongahela River. Eyewitnesses saw the bomber glide over the Homestead High Level Bridge and splash-land near the Glenwood Bridge in Hays.
Everyone on the plane survived the crash-landing and were able to climb up to the upper area of the aircraft as it drifted downstream. Reports show that the plane stayed afloat for 10-15 minutes, but as it began to sink, the crew members, who could all swim, either swam for a log floating by or set out for the shore. Sadly, two members sunk beneath the frigid river water, most likely succumbing to hypothermia. The bodies of Capt. Jean Ingraham and Staff Sgt. Walter Soocey were not found for months later.
Although the U.S. Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers dragged and dredged the river for 14 days after the crash, the plane was never seen again. As the crash happened during the Cold War era when espionage, conspiracies, and “duck and cover” drills were practiced in case of a nuclear attack, rumors ran rampant. Some speculated that plane was carrying nuclear weapons or aliens from a UFO in Nevada and that the government quickly extracted the plane to cover its tracks.
Others believe that the polluted water in the Monongahela River eroded the plane in the decades since its sinking below the surface. Still others have speculated that it drifted and fell into a gravel pit, the site where “gravel pirates” often they dredged the river bottom for gravel to be sold to customers. They believe the plane sank into a gravel pit, and 40 years’ worth of sediment filled the pit and buried the plan.
In 1995, the B-25 Recovery Group was formed and started a scientific investigation into finding the plane, which is an expensive proposition. Recently, the group teamed with the Heinz History Center to locate the missing plane, but despite their efforts the plane remains missing.