The doomed aircraft has still never been found.
Air travel in 1950 could be both glamorous and scary. Passengers dressed for the occasion, full meals were served, and the drinks were free. The friendly skies were an exclusive place, but also exceedingly dangerous. Between 1946 and 1949, fatal airliner incidents averaged nearly seven per month and more than 4,300 people lost their lives during air travel.
So, on the evening of June 23, 1950, as Northwest Orient Flight 2501, a fully loaded Douglas DC-4, roared westward on a New York-to-Seattle flight bound for a layover in Minneapolis, its 55 passengers were well aware of the dangers. When the plane approached the storm-whipped skies over Lake Michigan, the turbulence would have been a grim reminder of the recent air disasters in the news, as within the past two weeks, a pair of DC-4s had crashed into the Arabian Sea, killing 86 people.
The plane was scheduled to pass over Milwaukee at 11:30 p.m. in an aerial homecoming of sorts for several on board. Whitney Eastman, 59, had previously lived in Milwaukee. John Hokanson, on board with his wife and two children, had lived in Manitowoc. And stewardess Bonnie Ann Feldman, 25, was born in Bay City, in western Wisconsin.
It was nearing midnight when the control tower at Mitchell Field tried to contact Flight 2501. No one had heard from the plane since its 11:13 request to a Chicago control tower to reduce its altitude, which was denied due to air traffic. Calls sent out into the storm produced no reply. Operators in Milwaukee then issued a “blind broadcast,” asking the pilot to identify himself by circling Mitchell Field. The Milwaukee tower nervously watched the skies. After a half-hour, an emergency signal alert was issued to locate the missing craft.
By the next morning, it was obvious something had gone terribly wrong. Rescue boats spread out across the lake and dozens of planes prowled the skies as the Milwaukee County Morgue prepared to deal with the carnage. A pair of oil slicks a few miles off the shore of South Milwaukee were investigated, but divers found nothing. Within two days of the plane disappearing, the search had spread to an area of the lake 60 miles by 170 miles – a territory larger than Vermont.
But the searchers were on the wrong side of the lake. It was near South Haven, Michigan, that the grisly remains of the crash and its 58 victims washed ashore. No large pieces of the plane or complete bodies were ever found, but smaller bits of the dead become so plentiful that the beaches at South Haven were closed for several days. These remains were buried in a pair of mass graves in Michigan.
Since 2004, Michigan resident and shipwreck diver Valerie van Heest has been trying to find the missing plane. Since starting her search, she has made contact with the families of about 50 of the people on board the doomed plane. “For us both this is a historical challenge as well as a desire to provide the families with answers,” van Heest told Milwaukee Magazine.
But despite extensive searches over the years, the airplane due over Milwaukee that stormy night has never been found.