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Group plans to dive for crashes WWII bomber

Thursday, July 08, 1999

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A 43-year-old Pittsburgh history mystery could be solved this summer when the B-25 Recovery Group begins to search for the World War II bomber that took a fatal dive into the Monongahela River on Jan. 31, 1956.

The men, who believe the Air Force plane is buried in an old gravel pit in the river not far from Becks Run, are confident they have lined up the financial backers and equipment to launch a search-and-recovery mission.

"We're shooting for the end of July," said Robert Shema of the North Hills, a water-quality expert and project manager for McLaren/Hart Inc., an environmental engineering firm.

"I'm a native Pittsburgher, and I've heard about the story all my life," said Shema, who is the project's operations director. "We believe it's in the river, and we have the technology to locate it."

Over the years, legends have grown up around the B-25, which some say carried an atom bomb, nerve gas, Howard Hughes or other secret cargo. Because of the supposedly mysterious cargo, some witnesses insist the military came in, pulled the plane to the surface, cut it up and shipped it down the river on barges.

Shema has a simpler explanation: The plane, with a crew of six, just didn't have enough fuel to get from Selfridge Air Force Base in Michigan to Olmstead Air Force Base in Harrisburg. All six crew members survived the crash, but two drowned; their bodies were recovered a few weeks later.

Images and artifacts salvaged from the B-25 search will be exhibited in the fall at the Sen. John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, which will mount a billboard on the side of its building to publicize the show. History Center staff also will help the search team with historical research on the bomber.

After seeing a Post-Gazette story in April on the search team's interest in finding the B-25, "we started to talk to them and realized this was a great partnership," said Betty Arenth, senior vice president of the History Center.

The exhibit is planned as the first in a series of shows exploring "History's Mysteries" in Western Pennsylvania.

"We want to market the History Center as a place where you can discover history's mysteries," Arenth said. "Many people study history for academic purposes, but most people just have a natural curiosity about things. The B-25 is an excellent example of a story that captures people's natural interest, which leads to an interest in military history and the history of the rivers and other topics as well."

The billboard not only will advertise the exhibit, but also cover up the scruffy side of the History Center's building.

"We were concerned about the appearance of the west wall, which faces the convention center," Arenth said. The wall will be repaired before the billboard -- which also should raise awareness of the History Center -- is installed.

"We need to do really bold things to get people's attention," architect Robert Pfaffmann told the city Art Commission, which approved the project two weeks ago. Pfaffmann & Associates is overseeing the center's future expansion plans and interim projects like this one.

The image of the B-25 making its final approach to the Mon is, of course, wholly manufactured -- by Filmet, which produced it a few years ago to show how it could digitally incorporate several images to create a seamless, believable photograph.

At the History Center, one of the plane's wings will extend 16 feet over the sidewalk, with the wing image laminated on board. A red light will flash on the tip of the wing, just like the real thing.

The plane depicted on the billboard, a true B-25 bomber, isn't identical to the one that went down, which had been retrofitted for training purposes. And the History Center is taking another liberty by reversing the image for better visual effect.

Arenth said the History Center's show won't be a major exhibit "unless they pull up an entire plane."

That is unlikely, Shema said.

"We don't expect to find an aircraft intact," he said. "We hope there will be some aluminum [from the fuselage], but there's a good chance that already dissolved."

They hope to locate and be able to identify the plane's engine blocks, landing gears, tires and gas tanks.

But don't expect clear, Titanic-like video or even still photographs of what is found under the silt and sand. Rather, using a device called a sub-bottom profiler, the recovery team will produce sonar images of cross sections of whatever is found.

"If we get them close together and line them all up, you can see the image" of the object, Shema said.

If they find the bomber, does he have any qualms about dispelling one of the city's most storied and enduring mysteries?

"For us it's not a matter of any mystery," Shema said. "This aircraft simply ran out of gas."

Thursday, July 08, 1999

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