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Malaysian Air disappearance: Echoes of 1950 Northwest Airlines flight

The Northwest 2501 incident is a mystery that has confounded searchers for over six decades.

A Northwest Douglas DC-4, circa 1960.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The disappearance of Malaysian Air Flight 370 with 239 people aboard brings echoes from the past as loss turns to wonder of what happened to the ill-fated airliner. With the passing of each agonizing day, the mystery strikes a historic resemblance to a Minneapolis-based Northwest Airlines incident.

As 34 planes, 40 ships and search crews from 10 countries scour hundreds of thousands of nautical miles of the South China Sea and Straits of Malacca, a similar armada was looking for Northwest Airlines Flight 2501, 64 years ago.

In June 1950, also under pleasant flying conditions, the Northwest DC4 flight departed New York LaGuardia Airport in the evening, as scheduled.

Carrying maximum takeoff weight, 55 passengers and 3 crew members, the transcontinental flight was bound for Seattle with an en-route stop planned in Minneapolis. Cruising at 3,500 feet over Lake Michigan, near Benton Harbor, Mich., Captain Robert Lind encountered a line of electrical storms and quickly asked permission to reduce altitude to 2,500 feet.

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The Civil Aviation Authority could not grant the request because of congestion in the area. That was the last transmission received from Northwest Flight 2501.

‘A terrific flash’

Near South Haven, Mich., a retired Navy commander witnessed “a terrific flash” over Lake Michigan. And at least four residents of tiny Glenn, Mich., were loitering in their cars at the town’s gas station at 12:15 a.m. when they heard an aircraft sputtering overhead. One of the bystanders retorted: “Bring that plane down here buddy. We’ll fix it up for you!”

Danny Thompson testified that the plane’s engines sounded “like a stock car with a blown head gasket.” Then Mrs. William Bowie saw a “queer flash.”

“It was a funny light. It looked like the sun when it goes down. It only lasted a second, then was gone,” she said.

The early investigations into the Northwest 2501 disappearance indicated a midair explosion.

Just as in the Malaysian Air search, Lake Michigan search crews found bubbling oil and floating debris that ultimately bore no connection to the missing aircraft.

The Northwest 2501 crash was the biggest disaster in civilian aviation at the time.  

Cause ‘Unknown’

After an exhaustive investigation, the Civil Aeronautics Board labeled the cause of the Northwest 2501 crash as “Unknown.” Despite the massive proportions of the Northwest aircraft, weighing 71,000 pounds, wings spanning 117 feet and four engines weighing 1,600 pounds each — no significant pieces of the wreckage have ever been found!

Even the renowned author and shipwreck hunter Clive Cussler joined the search in May 2006. He has discovered more than 80 shipwrecks around the world. Cussler funded an advanced technology search, scanning Lake Michigan at a depth of 200 feet, near Benton Harbor, Mich. To this day, his search has come up empty and the saga continues. 

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The Lake Michigan crash inexorably changed the history of Northwest Airlines.

Top-to-bottom review

The government’s chief accident investigator, Donald W. Nyrop quickly stepped in to conduct a top-to-bottom safety review of Northwest’s pilot training and maintenance. His comprehensive list of 63 corrective measures so impressed Northwest’s board of directors that they began a relentless pursuit to hire Nyrop.

The effort was successful, culminating in his appointment as president and CEO in 1954. Over the next 24 years, Nyrop would lead Northwest Airlines from the edge of insolvency and despair to new heights of profitability and pre-eminence in the history of aviation.

Only time will tell if modern science and technology can write a different ending and bring closure to the Malaysian Air mystery.

Tony Randgaard, of Minneapolis and Chicago, worked for Northwest Airlines for 24 years and has been with United Airlines for eight. He has been published in Air Cargo News, the Forward, CNS Focus, the Rake and other publications.