A 53-Year-Old Tragic Mystery Appears To Be Solved In Vermont

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A more-than-half-a-century-old aviation mystery has almost certainly been solved. On Jan. 27, 1971, Jet Commander N400CP departed from Burlington International Airport in Vermont bound for Providence, Rhode Island. The twinjet disappeared shortly after takeoff in snowy weather. Over the next several days, nearby Lake Champlain froze over, and despite several widespread searches over the years, no wreckage was found.

On board were two pilots and three employees of a property development company based in Georgia. They were working on a project in the Burlington area. None were ever heard from again.

Last month, an underwater remotely operated vehicle (ROV) discovered wreckage and recorded images of a jet with evidence of a custom-designed paint scheme that matches that of N400CP in 200 feet of water off near Juniper Island in Lake Champlain. Sonar images show the location is close to the position last reported for the Jet Commander by air traffic control. Garry Kozak, head of the underwater search team, reported on June 11 that he is confident they have found the crashed aircraft. He said, “With all those pieces of evidence, we’re 99% absolutely sure.”

Charles Williams, whose father was one of the passengers on board the jet, told the Associated Press that Kozak was a hero for his efforts to find the Jet Commander. The search had earlier discovered wreckage that turned out to be a military aircraft, but a sonar search last winter revealed further evidence of a debris field that the team determined last month was most likely that of the Jet Commander.

Noting that the National Transportation Safety Board will investigate to confirm whether the wreckage Kozak found is that of his father’s aircraft, Williams told AP, “Whether there is tangible remains—and I hate to say it that way—and worth disturbing, that’s a decision that we’ll have to figure out later, and part of what we’re unpacking now. It’s hard when you start to think about that.”

Williams and other relatives of the victims plan to hold a memorial service.

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Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

9 COMMENTS

  1. It must just be me… How on Earth has it taken 50 years to find this aircraft? It is barely 5 miles from where it took off!

    • It usually comes down to money. After a period of time, it is up to the family members to fund this kind of discovery. Not everyone can afford it. In addition, I doubt they had the technology that was affordable or capable to get pictures or video at these levels.

    • Have you ever been diving in deep water? They would likely have never been found without modern technology.

    • It was known that the plane crashed in the lake, as wreckage washed ashore soon after the accident. But, the lake is very deep and large. And finding stuff underwater is really hard (a lot harder than TV shows make it seem). Despite several intense searches over the years using the latest technology available at the time (one as recently as 10 years ago), the plane’s remains had not been found until now.

      Even finding stuff above ground is hard. In 1999 a Learjet crashed on approach to Lebanon, New Hampshire. It took almost three years to find the crash site because of the dense forest.

  2. Good question. Depth of lake, contour of lake bottom, maybe no one really cared that much to search. Maybe people had a good reason not to search.

  3. I am a retired geophysicist and used sonar half a century ago. We used both vertical and side scan sonar of the cutting edger for the time. We did find wrecks occasionally. It cost megabucks to do a marine survey in those days. Lakes are not easy sites for geophysical surveys. That photo shows that visibility is so poor as to be useless. Glad that the wreck was eventually found.

    Earlier than that I was in the Civil Air Patrol. We found far more wrecks with MK1 eyeballs but some were really difficult to find and were not discovered until stumbled over by some hunter. We need more hunters who will report wrecks and more recovery crews to remove wrecks, or at least mark them. And more CAP pilots would not hurt either.

  4. This was already reported two weeks ago by the local TV news channel here in Burlington. Searcher Kozak explained in that video that the jet had broken into so many pieces that the sonar just looked “like a pile of rocks”, hence explaining why it took so long to find it.

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