You’ve probably heard the story or at least portions of it.
The year was 1956. The Cold War was simmering. The U.S. military was on alert.
A B-25 Mitchell bomber on a cross-country training flight ran into trouble over Pittsburgh and made a splash landing in the Monongahela River near Homestead.
Six crew members were on board at the time. All survived the crash. Only four would survive in the cold January water. They made it to safety while the plane went under, never to be seen again.
There has been plenty of speculation in the six decades since, and plenty of conspiracy theories — some involving cover-ups and others mysterious cargo — but no solid indication of what became of the vessel.
So, naturally, when we asked readers to submit their burning, unanswered questions about this region of ours as part of Peculiar Pittsburgh, a reader asked about this Monongahela mystery.
“What became of the bomber that went down in the Mon River?”
The truth is no one knows, at least not yet. But we can tell you about the group of searchers that says it may be closer than ever to finding the plane’s final resting place.
There are armchair sleuths and then there’s the “B-25 Recovery Group” — an assortment of volunteer divers for whom the location of this plane has remained a near singular fixation for a very long time.
Since 1995, the group has searched the waters around where the plane was last spotted on no fewer than a dozen occasions. Its eight members were planning to hit the water again this month, but operations manager Bob Shema said it’s now clear that won’t be happening.
“Everyone got tied up with other projects,” Shema explained by phone last week. “But hopefully we’ll get out there next year.”
Their dives usually take place after Labor Day when recreational boat traffic is down and the weather conditions are relatively stable. Obviously they haven’t found the plane yet, but Shema believes they’re tantalizingly close.
“There’s an area that’s 200 feet long by 50 feet wide that we believe the plane may be buried in, so that’s the next thing we want to investigate.”
“Through the years we’ve used electronics to map the bottom of the river and that particular area has always had a different electronic signature than any other place in the river,” Shema added.
The 200-foot section in question is downstream of what is now Sandcastle. It’s on the left descending bank if you’re facing toward Downtown Pittsburgh.
He said they’ll likely use a drill to bore down into the sediment without disturbing it and, if all goes according to plan, keep drilling down until they hit an airplane.
“Based on the size of the plane, if we drill down every seven-and-a-half feet there’s no way we can miss something, even if it’s buried,” he added.
It’s also one of the deepest spots on the river, Shema told us. Soon after the crash landing, that stretch of the river measured 47-feet deep, per Shema. Today, the depth is closer to 32 feet.
“So there’s a chance the plane could have slid into this area when it was deeper and through the years got covered over by sediment,” Shema said.
An updated rendering of the B-25 in the Mon River.COURTESY B-25 RECOVERY GROUP
The B-25 Recovery Group has eight members now, a mixture of engineers, lawyers, military historians and ex-military members. Shema works for Marion Hill Associates, Inc., a diving company based in New Brighton.
“We have no outside funding, so we basically have to work in between other jobs,” Shema explained. This year, he added, the between just wasn’t big enough.
They know where the plane hit the water; there were hundreds of eyewitnesses.
Shema said the aircraft almost hit the Homestead High Level bridge, now the Homestead Grays Bridge.
“Cars came to a screeching halt,” he recounted. “People jumped out and went to the railing and watched this plane hit the water. People on Carson Street and the shoreline watched the plane come down with all six crew members out on the wings.”
And then, soon after they’d hit the water, the crew members began swimming for their lives. After that, the trail goes cold.
Some think the aircraft floated all the way down to Emsworth on the Ohio River. Shema isn’t one of them.
“We have surveyed all the way down to Emsworth, and we’re confident it’s not there,” he said.
He thinks it’s likely much closer to where it first went in off Homestead.
And the disappearance wasn’t momentary. It was ongoing with the plane subjected to churning currents, thrust from aquatic vessels passing overhead and now decades of sedimentation.
Shema isn’t sure any of the four surviving crew members are still alive. He said the captain was tracked down in Washington state a few years back, but “he didn’t want to talk about the accident.”
Asked why he’s still interested all these years later, Shema, who was a child in 1956, answered, “I think it’s a piece of Pittsburgh history. Unfortunately two crew members drowned trying to make it to shore, and their bodies were recovered, I believe four and six weeks later […] We still feel that we would like to know what really happened to them.”
Shema and his group are almost certainly the last people still actively searching for those answers. But they’re on hold now, and Shema sounds at once optimistic and jaded considering the prospect of waiting another year.
“It’s been there 62 years,” he said of the plane. “We’ll get to it eventually. It’s not like it’s going anywhere.”