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Searchers say 'Ghost Bomber' can be found in the Mon

Sunday, April 04, 1999

By Torsten Ove, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

One of Pittsburgh's most enduring urban mysteries could be solved for about $25,000.

B-25 medium bomber was one of America's most famous warplanes of WWII. (Encyclopedia of Aircraft) 

A group of four guys who call themselves the B-25 Recovery Group say that's roughly what they'll need to prove, once and for all, that the legendary "Mitchell Ghost Bomber" is at the bottom of the Monongahela River.

The Air Force B-25 ditched in the Mon Jan. 31, 1956, and has not been seen again, unless you believe the conspiracy theorists who say the military recovered the plane in secret because it was carrying an atom bomb, nerve gas or some such clandestine cargo.

The searchers think the plane, a World War II relic refitted as a trainer, is buried in an old gravel pit in the river not far from Becks Run.

But to find the exact resting place, they need money to bid on expensive technology called sub-bottom profiling sonar, hire a technician who knows how to use the device and maybe an expert to help interpret the results.

Oh, they'll need a boat, too.

"Have the head guy at the Post-Gazette cut us a check and we'll be out there tomorrow," said group member Matt Pundzak, 44, a Washington, D.C., information consultant. "Right now, we have nobody willing to support us. At this point, we'd like to conclude this thing. Money's the big driver."

    The B-25 Mystery

Link to a detailed map on the B-25's last flight and theories on its location in the Mon River in a visual report by PG Staff Artist James Hilston.


The group - Pundzak; John Uldrich, 62, a professor from Minneapolis; Steve Byers, 32, a South Hills businessman who runs a computer company called Sennex; and Bob Shema, 50, of the North Hills, a water-quality expert and project manager for McLaren/Hart Inc. - is an eclectic bunch.

Fascinated by the wreck for years, they searched for it in 1995 using side-scan sonar and global-positioning satellite technology. They didn't find it, they say, because side-scan sonar can't locate buried objects, and the plane is under 10 to 15 feet of sediment.

Salvaging the plane isn't the goal. The group members just want the satisfaction of finding it when everyone thinks they're crazy for trying.

"For me, it's just the fun of it," Pundzak said. "This is a challenge. It would be great to find the thing just to say we found it."

One member has been so inspired by the search that he's taken B-25 hunting to new heights - or depths.

Uldrich, a marketing professor and a former Marine aviator with a background in sonar technology, has spent the past three years teaching at a university in Shanghai, China. On the side, he and his wife, Eva, are busy hunting for remnants of the famed Doolittle Raiders, the U.S. squadron of B-25s that sparked terror over Tokyo in the dark, early days of World War II.

The planes crashed trying to make it back to the USS Hornet after the 1942 raid.

In January, Uldrich said, he and Eva came across a piece of one of the bombers in Zeijiang Province. He's hoping to find more and turn them over to the Smithsonian Institution or some other museum. He calls the couple's mission the "Doolittle Project."

So far, no pieces of the "Monongahela Project" have been as forthcoming.

There had been talk in the fall that the group might be ready to search this spring, but without cash to rent the equipment, everything's on hold.

"This is a matter of time, money and logistics," Uldrich e-mailed from Shanghai. "There isn't any doubt, however, that a shadowy outline of a vintage B-25 will someday be available for all to see."

The location isn't a guess. At a lecture in Pittsburgh in 1997, the group said the plane slipped into a pit dug by excavators for construction fill.

The location: mile marker 4.9, left descending bank, latitude 40.24.316N, longitude 079.57.144W.

"It's a little area across from [the former] J&L [steel mill] called Bird's Landing," said Pundzak, a former Air Force intelligence officer originally from Pittsburgh. "We believe the aircraft is sitting under 10 to 15 feet of silt in 32 feet of water, 150 feet from shore."

In 1995, a side-scan sonar survey found only cars, trees and a wrecked paddle wheeler.

One sonar image proved intriguing. Posted on the group's Web site, it shows the outline of something that vaguely resembles a plane's fuselage.

But divers later discovered it was a sunken wooden barge.

It wasn't the first time a scan of the river turned up something that looked like the bomber.

A Fish and Boat Commission sonar survey of the three rivers, the results of which were released last year, showed an object in the Mon that could have been a plane. It turned out to be a couple of barges and debris.

Sub-bottom profiling sonar would resolve the issue because the sensor will sink into the silt and locate the plane if it's there.

Pundzak said the bomber was probably badly corroded by the soup of chemicals that once polluted the Mon, but that it is probably still in one piece.

The longer the plane remains missing, the more the speculation grows about why it hasn't been found.

A common misperception fueling the mystery is that the plane is massive, like the four-engine B-17 of "Memphis Belle" fame, and should be easy to find.

But the B-25, a World War II workhorse like the B-17, has a wingspan of 67 feet.

"Get yourself into a B-25 to see how cramped it is," Pundzak said. "Most people think of a B-25 and they think of a B-17. This was a small aircraft."

The bomber's disappearance is cloaked in conspiracy theories.

Depending on the story, the plane was carrying an atom bomb, chemical weapons, state-of-the-art communications equipment, a Soviet defector, Mafia money, Las Vegas showgirls and Howard Hughes.

Because of the mysterious cargo - whatever it was - some witnesses insist the military swept into town, quickly pulled the plane to the surface, cut it into pieces and shipped the wreck down the river on barges.

The truth of the matter is more mundane, according to the recovery group. The plane carried nothing of interest. The flight was scheduled to give the crew some air time, and the plane was to be retired in 18 months.

It took off from Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, stopped at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, then flew to Selfridge Air Force Base in Michigan before heading to Olmstead Air Force Base in Harrisburg. But flying over Western Pennsylvania, the pilot, Maj. William Dotson, 33, of San Antonio, saw that his fuel was low and decided to head for Allegheny County Airport in West Mifflin.

Realizing he couldn't make it, he chose to ditch in the river between the Glenwood and Homestead High-Level bridges in front of hundreds of witnesses.

In an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette two days after the crash, Dotson, a veteran of air campaigns in World War II and Korea, said he chose the river because he didn't want to hit anyone on the ground.

He wasn't the first pilot to ditch a plane in the Mon. Two years before, a DC-3 crashed near McKeesport, killing 10.

In this crash, everyone on board survived the impact. Dotson and four others clambered out onto the wings as the plane floated downstream. At that point, one crew member was missing. Later, about a half mile from Becks Run, the plane sank, and another man went under and didn't come up.

Four men were rescued. The bodies of the two drowned men were found a few weeks later.

According to Air Force records and news accounts, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Pittsburgh River Patrol, the Coast Guard and private vessels dragged the river repeatedly to find the plane. The water was running high and fast, hampering their efforts.

The day after the crash, according to the Air Force report, a Coast Guard cutter dragging a 350-pound anchor near Becks Run snagged what searchers believe was one of the plane's wings and hauled it to the surface.

But the anchor slipped off and the plane sank. The anchor hooked again, but this time the 2-inch tow line snapped. On a third pass, a smaller anchor was also lost.

The search continued. On Feb. 3, an Army Corps of Engineers dredging barge swept the river 150 times and found nothing. The Coast Guard, using a specially made grappling hook, dragged the main channel. Nothing.

After 14 days, according to the Air Force, the search was abandoned.

The recovery group speculates the plane slipped into the gravel pit after the Coast Guard snagged and lost it.

With the bottom profiling sensor, a couple of technicians and a decent boat, they say, they can show it's still down there.

"The problem is that treasure hunters and people who have this equipment don't want to come to Pittsburgh," Pundzak said. "They aren't familiar with the brown water environment. If this was off the coast of Florida, it would have been found by now."

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