High-tech explorers search Mon for elusive B-25

Matthew Santoni
| Saturday, Oct. 11, 2008

Divers and scientists are spending this weekend delving into a mystery that has lurked in the muddy waters of the Monongahela River for 52 years: What happened to the B-25 bomber that splashed into the river at the height of the Cold War?

The official record says that on Jan. 31, 1956, the World War II-era bomber ran out of fuel en route to Harrisburg and ditched in the river -- just missing the Homestead High-level Bridge on its approach -- before floating downstream and sinking. But local lore says the plane was raised by the Army and spirited away in the dead of night to hide a secret cargo, ranging from UFO parts to nuclear bomb components.

This weekend, the "B-25 Recovery Group" is trying for the third time in 14 years to find the remains of the plane, this time armed with the latest technologies for searching beneath the water and silt.

"I would meet people and go over their stories," said Bob Shema, operations director for the group. "In 15 years, I haven't come up with one eyewitness to the conspiracy theories. It's always some friend of a friend."

Those theories likely were fueled by heavily censored reports and muddled memories of another plane, a commercial DC-3, that crashed and was recovered from the river two years earlier, said John Uldrich, a member of the recovery group and a former Marine. From his experience, the censored parts of the official report dealt with who was to blame for the plane going down on the final leg of its Nevada-to-Harrisburg training flight.

"It has nothing to do with aliens, Vegas showgirls or covert Mafia money," Uldrich said.

The group set out Friday in boats laden with high-tech sonar scanners, metal detectors, remote-controlled cameras and ground-penetrating radar to probe two search areas: a silt-filled gravel pit downstream from the Glenwood Bridge deep enough to hide the plane, and an area off the south end of Hazelwood where a barge captain said he pulled up what appeared to be airplane wreckage in 1964, but was told to dump it back in and get back to work.

Shema said it is unlikely the team would find the whole bomber: Decades of exposure to pollution in the Mon and heavy barge traffic rolling overhead probably dissolved or destroyed its thin aluminum skin.

"The water quality in the Mon in the '50s was very poor, with acid leaching from old mines and the steel mills," Shema said. "Add to that the propeller wash from tugboats, and it's just like sandblasting."

So the searchers concentrated on finding durable objects that may have survived, like the engine blocks, landing gear, tires, armor plating, gas tanks and Plexiglas cockpit windows, he said. Side-scanning sonar gave them a picture of the whole area, and a metal-detecting magnetometer determined if interesting objects were metallic or simply wood or concrete.

A few objects of interest were pinpointed yesterday afternoon, and searchers spent the day gathering information about them with all the high-tech gadgetry. Divers will go in for a closer look at the most promising candidates today. One particularly enticing piece appeared to be a metal tank with hydraulic equipment still attached to it.

H. Thomas Walsh, senior project manager at Hays-based Civil & Environmental Consultants Inc., said the group was using new technologies that weren't available in searches during the 1990s -- which found only sunken wooden barges or other debris. The ground-penetrating radar, for example, has been used only on solid land before, and its application to water searches was still experimental, he said.

The recovery group is donating its time, and companies are donating supplies and equipment. Even if the search finds nothing after it concludes today, its organizers say they will have demonstrated technology that could be applied to search and rescue operations or Homeland Security work -- sweeping the rivers for evidence, missing people or terrorist threats.

The group's past sonar searches have produced "baseline scans" of sections of the river, which officials could compare to current scans and more quickly spot new things along the bottom, said James Holman, chief of the Allegheny County's River Rescue unit.

If they do find it, "It would be a moment for all of Pittsburgh," Shema said.

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