Beginning in the spring of 2018, the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association in partnership with Greg Busch of Busch Marine in Freeland, Michigan, will begin a new joint venture expedition in search of the remains of Northwest Airlines Flight 2501.
The modern day search for Flight 2501 began in in 2004 as a partnership between Holland, Michigan-based Michigan Shipwreck Research Association (MSRA) and nationally acclaimed novelist Clive Cussler, author of more than three dozen books. With the proceeds from his books, Cussler operates the nonprofit organization, National Underwater Marine Agency (NUMA), and mounts expeditions around the world to find the world’s most famous lost vessels. Many of these adventures are detailed in his non-fiction books, The Sea Hunters I and II, including the famed Civil War submarine, the CSS Hunley. But up until 2004, Cussler had never attempted a project in the Great Lakes. To undertake this search, Cussler sent side scan sonar expert Ralph Wilbanks, owner of Diversified Wilbanks, Inc. to South Haven, Michigan in the fall of 2004 to work with MSRA, which compiled research on the crash and developed an initial search grid in preparation for the first search effort.
The first effort over a two week period did not result in a discovery. The team regrouped in the spring of 2005 to renew the effort for a month-long expedition. Again, the wreckage remained elusive. Cussler continued to send his team each spring for about one month to continue the effort. Over the last many expeditions, Wilbanks, associate Steve Howard, and other crew members have worked out of South Haven, Michigan, to comb the lake bottom for evidence of this crash. Using side scan sonar, the team covered nearly six hundred square miles of bottomland, finding, instead, ten other shipwrecks, all later surveyed by MSRA, including the car ferry Ann Arbor No. 5, lost in 1969; the Joseph P. Farnan, a victim of fire in 1889; the schooner A.P. Dunton, lost in 1869; the schooner William Tell lost in 1869, the schooner Hattie Wells lost in 1912, a 40-foot work barge; and perhaps the oldest sloop yet found in Lake Michigan, which has yet to be identified.
In 2013, the NUMA crew returned for what Cussler indicated would be his tenth and last expedition, but did not find the wreck of Flight 2501. In a last ditch effort, MSRA spent an additional 10 days in June that year working with side scan sonar expert David Trotter to cover an additional 20 square miles, to no avail. In August 2013, author and leading member of the MSRA exploration team, V.O. van Heest, decided to release the new book Fatal Crossing despite having not yet found the wreck. This was a difficult decision for both the author and the publisher, but a quote from the book explains their collective reasoning:
“I finally realized that the answers about what happened to Flight 2501 do not lay on the bottom of Lake Michigan; they lay in our research. Our inability to find the wreck has forced us to search high and low for any small scrap of information that might point us to the wreck. Instead, that research actually uncovered the answers to the questions that have plagued so many of the families of Flight 2501 victims and others interested in this accident. I thought about what Clive has often said: ‘A wreck will be found only when it wants to be found.’ I don’t think Flight 2501 wanted to be found. Instead, I think it wanted us to learn about the plane, the flight, the crew, the passengers, the search-and-recovery operation, the wrongful death suit, and other similar accidents, all things that we could not possibly learn from studying the wreckage on the lake bottom. Only then could we conclude, with a reasonable degree of certainty, the reasons for this tragic accident.”
The book provides a plausible explanation for this accident. It offers the families of the victims and others interested in this unusual tragedy a well-researched conclusion. MSRA concluded that finding the wreck after more than six decades underwater would likely only provide an answer for where the accident took place: A very scattered debris field might suggest an explosion or breakup in the air and a more concentrated wreckage field would suggest impact with the surface of the lake. However, beyond potentially drawing those conclusions, little else could be gained by finding the wreckage. In 1950 “black boxes” did not exist and after so long underwater little other facts could be discerned from a study of the wreckage. It is unknown how today’s NTSB or FAA would react if the wreck site was found, but after so long, it would be unlikely that the government would take on such an old investigation.
Flight 2501 received some unexpected media attention in March of 2014 after Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared. Reporters interviewed V.O. van Heest and cited similarities to the strange disappearance of Flight 2501, including lack of a radio call indicating trouble, being scheduled on one route but having evidence of being on another route, phantom sightings of debris, family members gathering to wait for information, and those families seeking, but not receiving, clear answers. As of this writing, the remains of Flight MH370 have not been found. Tragically for the families of Flight MH370 passengers, their agony is compounded because they don’t know what happened.
In 2015 new leads discovered by MSRA prompted Cussler to send his sonar team back to Lake Michigan to continue the search effort. However, joint expeditions in 2015, 2016, 2017 and MSRA independent expeditions in 2016 and 2017 still have not turned up the wreckage. In 2018, at 87 years old, Cussler announced that he will not be continuing to fund the search effort.
But the search effort will continue. Stay tuned for more information.