I do this thing when I'm not sure what to do about something: I go into this database of old newspapers I'm fond of and search for a phrase. Late a few nights ago, hardly thinking about what I was typing, I went and searched for "lost plane."
I got 1,742 results.
If I searched for "missing plane," I got more. And I started, almost without thinking, to flip through the articles.
Everyone these days seems to have a Very Simple Theory about our current "lost plane," simple in large part because there are so few stable facts to check a theory against, leaving everyone to draw elegant but ultimately useless diagrams on the internet chalkboard.
It has been hard to hear oneself in the theorizing. Any emotionally sentient person would like the plane to be found, or its mystery solved, to give the families answers. Any vaguely responsible writer recognizes that offering observations culled entirely from sitting at a desk in New York contributes approximately nothing to this process.
Instead I want to look at stacks of articles so old that some of them spell "clue" as "clew." The distance imposed by time lessens the noise, at least, though there's still a significant question of futility involved.
The articles, you see, reveal that as long as we've had planes, they've been disappearing, usually for good. We used to lose them at a much faster clip until the 1960s, actually. It was only then that air traffic control began to use computers that could crunch radar and transponder data and give us more accurate pictures of flight path, etc. Then loss stories became crash stories, by and large, instead.
But before that, the papers sometimes carried tales of different missing planes stacked atop each other in columns. In one particularly bad week in 1964, two large commercial flights crashed within days of each other, killing 143 people. Most of the lost planes, however, were military, but more than a few carried civilian passengers, kids en route to visit a sick father, families of missionaries returning from South America. The aggregate effect is to make you wonder why anyone flew at all.
Only sometimes do the stories tell you why. Sometimes the reasons are ironic in hindsight. A 1925 plane that disappeared over Lake Michigan, en route from Chicago to Detroit, carried passengers with the memorable names of Eugene T. Coutellier, Norris Gathercoal, and Earle P. Banker:
Gathercoal and Banker intended to see Henry Ford and ask him for jobs as flyers of his new planes.
But no one ever saw them again, though the small plane itself was perhaps sighted floating not far from Gary, Indiana.
Most of these stories have non-endings like that, the planes eventually just given up as lost, the wreckage and the people unrecovered, the relatives mentioned as left behind but not given much chance to speak about it.
Those mysteries have also always attracted cranks and prognosticators. Here, for example, is a somewhat mysterious item from the May 14, 1927, edition of the New York Times, entitled "Dreams of Lost Plane":
Mrs. Walter Scott Goodwin of 202 Park Avenue dreamed this morning that she saw the aeroplane of Captains Nungesser and Coli at the base of a towering snow-capped cliff. The plane's left wing was broken. Beyond the plane was a narrow expanse of water an many small islands.
A man with a pack on his back was climbing down the cliff.
"It was only a fleeting glimpse of the plane," Mrs. Goodwin states, "but it was startlingly realistic. The peak seemed like a glacier. Near to the man was an animal, either a fox or a seal."
Mrs. Goodwin, before 1914, dreamed of red clouds and predicted the World War.
Nungesser and Coli are fairly easy to track: they were French aviators looking to do the first uninterrupted transatlantic flight from Paris to New York. They've never been found, on a glacier or otherwise. And the cultural memory of their disappearance has been eclipsed by Charles Lindbergh completing the task just two weeks after they vanished. But the reasons for the Times reporting Mrs. Walter Scott Goodwin's dream remain lost in the sands of time. As far as I can tell, she's never again mentioned in the paper.
Other obsessives put more skin in the game. In March 1938, a TWA flight vanished over the Sierra Nevadas. It was carrying only nine passengers, and it remained lost until June of the same year. A 24-year-old self-described "gold prospector" from Fresno, California named H.O. Collier, was the one who finally found it. He spent months discussing the flight with TWA officials and studying the charts, and then finally hiked alone into Yosemite National Park to find the wreckage.
Collier picked up a brief case bearing the initials of Henry M. Salisbury, 31, a TWA pilot who was a passenger on the flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles. He also picked up a pilot's cap, which belonged either to Pilot John D.Graves, 35, Palo Alto, or Co-Pilot C.W. Wallace, 29, San Francisco.
Then he hiked back out the twelve hours to the park ranger's office bearing his proof of a disaster resolved. Then H.O. Collier, whoever he was, vanishes from the record too.
There are other stories that more closely resemble the received image of lost planes we get from the hazier shades of pop culture memory. All the stories end bleakly, it seems, though not without flourishes that feel almost scripted:
In 1950, a missionary plane bearing 10 adults and 5 children that disappeared in the Colombian jungle and all the news media could offer was a report of an "Indian" who swore he'd found it, and that everyone in it was dead. In July 1953, messages scrawled in the Costa Rican sand gave brief hope of finding another lost plane, a Cessna bearing two American businessmen on holiday, which disappeared in July 1953 en route to Lima, Peru, from Nicaragua. But ultimately they weren't found either. Flares were sighted from a downed passenger jet in the Pacific 1957, but those who saw them were not sure if they were just shooting stars. (They did find parts of the wreckage, including its shoeless passengers, futilely wearing their life jackets, from that one.)
There are far fewer stories of actual rescue than there are small narrative embellishments like those.
None of this bears on the current lost plane either statistically or factually. You learn from it only that we have long lived in a world where planes disappear and weird and sometimes unexplainable bits of chaos are always reported in the aftermath. I guess that feels comforting this week, though not nearly as comforting, one imagines, as certainty would feel to the people who knew people on that plane.
Image by Jim Cooke.