As military and airline officials from ten countries search for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, many people wonder how such a large aircraft with 239 people aboard could literally vanish. If the MH777 was over open water, the answer is easily. Water covers roughly 71% of the Earth’s surface. Countless planes have disappeared over oceans and seas in aviation’s 100-plus-year history. We know more about the surface of the moon than we do the depths of our planet’s oceans.
But, the disappearance of the Malaysian airliner recalls another mysterious disappearance nearly 64 years ago. On June 23, 1950, a Northwest Airlines DC-4 plane vanished over Lake Michigan – and has never been found. En route from New York City to Seattle, Northwest Flight 2501, carrying 55 passengers and 3 crew members, had a scheduled stop in Minneapolis. As the plane reached Benton Harbor, Michigan, it encountered a line of thunderstorms. Captain Robert Lind asked for permission to reduce altitude from 3,500 feet to 2,500 feet. The Civil Aviation Authority (now the Federal Aviation Administration) couldn’t grant permission because of flight congestion in the area. That’s the last anyone heard from Flight 2501.
With a total area of 22,394 square miles (58,000 km²) and a total volume of 1,180 cubic miles (4,918 km³), Lake Michigan is one of the largest freshwater lakes in the Western Hemisphere. Like the other four Great Lakes, it’s actually more of an inland sea. That can make it treacherous, especially in stormy weather.
A number of people later reported hearing a plane sputtering overhead, near where Northwest Flight 2501 disappeared. A few actually saw a bright flash just after midnight, just shortly after Captain Lind radioed to CAA. When officials realized the plane had never made it to Seattle, they launched an intense search across Lake Michigan. Oil streaks and debris found along the surface initially gave hope, but searchers later determined the material did not belong to Flight 2501.
After an extensive investigation, however, the CAA could only list the cause of the disappearance as “Unknown.” The debacle was the worst civil aviation disaster of its time. And, despite its weight of 71,000 pounds and a wing span of 117 feet, no remnant of the craft has ever been found.
In 2006, author and shipwreck hunter Clive Cussler joined the search. Cussler had located more than 80 shipwrecks across the globe and financed an extensive search of Lake Michigan. But, after reaching up to 200 feet beneath the surface, even he couldn’t find anything.
Considering the number of vessels that have met a tragic fate in its expansive waters, Lake Michigan is not prone to revealing its secrets too easily.