The Mystery of Northwest Flight 2501

On Expedition Unknown, Josh Gates searches for a commercial airliner that mysteriously vanished on June 23, 1950 while flying between New York City and Seattle. What happened the night Northwest Flight 2501 disappeared, and do answers lie in the chilly depths of Lake Michigan? Josh shares his findings.

February 18, 2020
By: Discovery

Clear skies ahead.

Looking down the runway in preparation for a flight in one of the world’s last operational #DC4 aircraft. This is the same type of plane as Northwest 2501, a flight that vanished over Lake Michigan on the night of June 23, 1950. The plane has never been found, and it remains the only large, commercial plane in U.S. history to go missing.

Prepare for take off.

Getting ready to take to the skies with pilots Tim Chopp and Dave Shurtleff in one of the last operating DC-4 / C-54 aircraft on earth. This particular plane was part of the historic Berlin Airlift, which dropped much-needed supplies to the citizens of West Berlin in 1948-1949 after the Soviets blocked the Allies access to the city.

A port in a storm.

The historic South Haven Light has been safely guiding ships into the entrance to the Black River on Lake Michigan since 1872. It is one of only four lighthouses left in Michigan with its original catwalk back to shore. It was from this very spot that the Navy refocused their search and rescue operations for Northwest Airlines flight 2501 after debris and remains washed ashore here.

Check the weather.

Stopping off at the NOAA / National Weather Service station in Grand Rapids, MI for a high-tech look at how weather is forecasted. Here, oceanographer David Schwab and meteorologist Daniel Cobb are able to take weather readings from the night that Northwest Airlines 2501 vanished 70 years ago and use 21st century technology to create a “hindcast” - a weather prediction for the past. It’s an incredible facility, and I’ll never take the morning weather report for granted again.

Oil change.

Flying a historic aircraft like the DC-4 isn’t exactly relaxing. There are no modern computers or autopilot in this massive, 65,000 pound plane. Hats off of pilots Tim Chopp and Dave Shurtleff for being such aces. In the middle of the flight, one of the plane’s four, enormous Pratt and Whitney 14-cylinder air-cooled radial piston engines needed more oil. Nerve-wracking for me, but not for the pilots who cooly walked back to huge storage tank and sent more oil to the engine in mid-flight.

Deep water detectives.

Despite being the worst air disaster in U.S history at the time, the disappearance of Northwest 2501 was swept off the front pages by the outbreak of the Korean War and was largely forgotten by the public. Luckily, Valerie and Jack Van Heest have been keeping the story of 2501 alive and doggedly searching for her wreckage. They head up the MSRA - the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association. Along with their team, they have located more than 20 shipwrecks lost in the waters of Lake Michigan, and they’re determined to bring closure to the families of 2501. These two are the definition of determined!

Meet the Skougs.

In the middle of my search, I stop off at the Never Miss Cafe to get coffee with Ken Skoug Jr., Ken Skoug III, and Ken Skoug IV, all named after Ken Skoug Sr. - a 51 year old passenger lost on Northwest 2501. Ken was just one of 58 people lost aboard the flight, and sitting with three generations of his family helped me to understand that this event is really a human story - one that ripples down through time. The world is a different place because of the loss of this flight, and it was an honor to sit the Ken’s family and hear about his life.

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