Air travel has become a fairly everyday experience despite its early association with high social standing. Airplanes are now widely used with rising standards that ensure that your time onboard will be safe, if not spacious. They are also one of the safest ways to travel, with an individual’s chance of being killed down to less than one in a million. Although fatalities have decreased every single year in the last three decades, there are still mysterious disappearances that defy our increasingly advanced tracking technology.
Throughout aviation history, planes have taken off with no sign of anything abnormal about to occur, only to never be seen or heard from again. The following examples left the authorities in each situation completely flabbergasted–with no wreckage, no bodies, and no solution to the mystery. Here are six cases of planes that vanished without a trace.
Amelia Earhart & the Lockheed Electra
The most famous disappearance in aviation history is that of pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart, who was the first woman to fly alone across the Atlantic. She set out on June 2, 1937 with navigator Fred Noonan to complete a 2,500-mile flight over the Pacific as part of her circumnavigation of the globe by plane. Shortly after reporting their location over the Nukumanu Islands on July 2nd, the Lockheed Electra and her crew of two were lost. The United States Navy and Coast Guard quickly launched a search but, after finding no trace, concluded that they had not be able to find their stop on Howland Island and soon run out of gas.
Theories proliferate about what happened to the famous aviatrix, whether she and Noonan crashed at sea, were captured by the Japanese, or landed on an anonymous island and died. Most recently, evidence has been found that Earhart and her navigator may have landed and lived out their days on the uninhabited island of Nikumaroro. The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery has gathered several artifacts, including human remains, pieces of shoes, and other items.
Glen Miller and the Norseman C-64
Legendary big band leader Glenn Miller joined the Army at the age of 38 in 1942 and was promoted to Major two years later. Despite his growing popularity, Miller hoped to support the war effort by leading the Army band. As an officer, he led musical broadcasts to boost soldiers’ morale and took part in German counter-propaganda programs. While flying from Bedfordshire, England to Paris for an Allied performance on December 15, 1944, Miller’s plane, a UC-64A Norseman, disappeared without a trace.
To this day, it is unclear what exactly happened to the Norseman. Initially, there were unsavory rumors, from a German assassination squad to Miller dying in the arms of a prostitute. One Royal Air Force investigator claimed to have seen Miller’s plane get hit by friendly fire when planes jettisoned bombs from an aborted raid over the English Channel. Most recently, evidence has emerged that the plane was flying low due to poor visibility when the fuel lines froze and the engine stalled. In the crash that followed, the lightweight plane would have disintegrated, and the impact would have killed the passengers. Without the wreckage, the world may never know what happened to this brilliant musician.
Five Avenger Bombers
On December 5, 1945, 14 naval officers flew five Avenger torpedo-bombers out of Fort Lauderdale Naval Station for routine navigation training. Two hours into “Flight 19”, leader Lt. Charles Taylor and several students reported compass failure. With no bearings and deteriorating weather, two hours of confusion ensued, after which the squadron wound up over 200 miles out to sea. With fuel running low, Taylor had them ditch their planes. An hour later, a Mariner aircraft performing search and rescue disappeared as well. Hundreds of ships combed the area, but no wreckage was ever found.
Together, these events helped establish the Bermuda Triangle’s reputation. However, the Mariner likely exploded due to flammable gasoline vapors collecting in the bilge, as a tanker reported an explosion shortly after the ship took off. On the other hand, the airmen likely became disoriented after their leader, Lt. Taylor, mistook the Bahamas for the Florida Keys. With malfunctioning compasses, he likely insisted that they fly into the Atlantic believing it was the Gulf of Mexico. So, despite radioed directions to fly north up the coast, the doomed men obeyed their leader and flew further out to sea, though many of them likely knew that they were flying to their deaths.
The Star Tiger
Another case that has fueled the legendary status of the Bermuda Triangle is the disappearance of the British South American Airways flight on the Avro Tudor IV plane called Star Tiger. After setting out from Lisbon on January 28, 1948 with 25 passengers and 6 crew, the plane stopped at Santa Maria in the Azores for fuel but was kept there by heavy rain and winds. On January 30, the flight left despite harsh winds with an Astro Lancastrian aircraft as a guide for help with weather updates.
They stayed in constant radio contact while flying at a low altitude of 2,000 feet to avoid gusts, and the Lancastrian landed expecting the Star Tiger to follow. After requesting a radio bearing, though, the flight disappeared. The U.S. Air Force quickly began a search that turned up nothing. Afterwards, a merchant ship reported a low-flying plane that could have been the Star Tiger, albeit far off course. However, it is likely that a sudden gust pulled the flight down or that a faulty altimeter caused the plane to be flown into the ocean. Although some have claimed aliens and interdimensional vortices were responsible, it is impossible to know for sure.
The Varig Boeing 707
In a distinctly suspicious set of circumstances, over 1.2 million US dollars’ worth of art disappeared on a Brazilian operated plane in 1979. In particular, a 707-323C Varig Airlines cargo jet departed from Narita International Airport for Galaeo International Airport in Rio de Janeiro on January 30th of that year. In its hold were over 150 paintings by Japanese-Brazilian painter Manubu Mabe that had been on loan for an arts exhibition in Tokyo. Just a half hour after takeoff, the plane and its 6 crew were nowhere to be found.
Rumors abound about what could have happened, but there is very little clear evidence for what did happen. For instance, some claim that Captain Gilberto Araujo da Silva, who had recently crash-landed a flight in Paris with over 100 fatalities, had made a deal with the KGB. As the story goes, he apparently diverted the flight, flew to a low altitude to avoid radar detection, and then landed on an unnamed Pacific island to exchange cargo before altering his appearance to avoid detection. Other rumors tell of mid-air heists and inexplicable engine failure. However, authorities believe that cabin depressurization led to the death and disappearance of all involved.
Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370
The most recent example is the infamous Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 that left Kuala Lumpur International Airport just after midnight on March 8, 2014. The plane and its 227 passengers and 12 crew were supposed to fly to China’s Beijing Capital International Airport. Around an hour after takeoff, air traffic control received one final message from MH370, “Alright, good night.” Shortly thereafter, they lost radar contact over the Andaman Sea. The Malaysian military then tracked the plane for six hours after the final message as it veered west over the Malay Peninsula. It wavered from 45,000 feet to 23,000 and then back to a standard cruising altitude. Satellite data showed that it eventually disappeared over the South Indian Ocean.
No distress signal was activated, no extreme weather drove the flight off course, no technical problems were recorded, and no passengers or crew had reason to cause trouble. The multinational search for MH370 was the most expansive and expensive in history, but despite searching over 46,000 square miles of the South Indian Ocean, little was ever found. Eventually, one flaperon washed up on Reunion Island, and some potentially related fragments washed up on southern African coasts. These lead experts to believe that the plane will be found west of Perth, Australia. However, the strange circumstances lead many to suspect terrorists, the CIA, aliens, and North Korean, Russian, or American conspiracies. In the end, we may never really know what happened to those 200 some souls on MH370.
While each of these disappearances remains a mystery, the international attention that Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 garnered has at least led to higher standards for aircraft position reporting and cockpit voice recording. Yet, it is striking that such events can happen even with so many advances in satellite tracking and GPS systems. Furthermore, the families of the people lost on MH370 and each of the other flights described above will never really know what happened to their loved ones. For them, not knowing may be more of a curse than death itself.
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