Unbeknownst to many, California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains are the site of a multitude of plane crashes— with 48 known crashes since 1932. This rugged and imposing, 400 mile-long mountain chain presents numerous challenges for aviation archaeologists in search of undiscovered crash sites.
Although most wrecks have been found, there are many still unaccounted for, and one of the most enduring mysteries in the region is the story of United States Air Force pilot Lieutenant David Steeves, and his Lockheed Martin T-33A jet.
Missing since 1957, this incredible tale of survival saw Lt. Steeves rise to national fame overnight, after enduring nearly two winter months in the High Sierra after ejecting from his crippled jet during a routine mission. Initially lauded as an American hero, questions regarding the truth of his account ultimately damaged his reputation beyond repair. He resigned from the military, his family life crumbled, and he was branded a liar by numerous media outlets. Following his accidental death in 1965, his story was forgotten until 1977, when a troop of boy scouts discovered the canopy of his jet in King’s Canyon National Park, thus validating his story. While his name was posthumously cleared, the larger mystery of the missing jet still remains.
From June 14 – 22nd 2014, Dr. Simon Donato, founder of Adventure Science, led an international team of endurance athletes into the High Sierra to search for Lt. Steeves’ missing jet. Adventure Science is an organization dedicated to conducting projects that pair ultra endurance athletes with scientists to solve mysteries, and conduct scientific field studies. With the initial goal to recover the ejection seat, and then ultimately the jet, Dr. Donato and a team of scientists and crash experts, analyzed the existing data (e.g. details from Steeves’ accident report, location of the canopy, location of his parachute, etc.), to identify, and high-grade several search locations near where the canopy was discovered.
As an ultra endurance athlete himself, and star of the endurance series Boundlesson the Esquire Network, Donato recruited an international crew of accomplished athletes to join the team: Winter Vinecki of Park City, Utah – world record holder for the youngest person to run a marathon on every continent and 2018 Olympic hopeful for Aerial Skiing; Helene Dumais – elite obstacle racer from Quebec, Canada; Jane Davis – elite ultra-runner and triathlete from Wenatchee, Washington; Dr. Tim Puetz – ex-army ranger and elite ultra-runner from Washington, D.C.; and Wanda Summers – elite ultra runner from Porthleven, England.
Over the course of seven days, the athletes scoured the rough and rugged terrain for any signs of Lt. Steeves’ ejection seat, or his infamous jet. In a lead-up to the main search for Lt. Steeves jet, and to help train the team as searchers and allow everyone to acclimate to the high altitude (max altitude reached during search was 12,000 ft. with most of the time spent above 8,000 ft.), the team was able to ground truth three wreck sites that were spotted from the air by the Civil Air Patrol during the formal search for Steve Fossett in 2007, but not listed in the national airplane crash registry maintained by the Air Force Rescue Coordination Centre. The ground-truthed wreckage included the known remains of a WWII fighter plane (Vultee BT-13A USAAF) in the Owens River Gorge, an undocumented external fuel tank (called a drop tank) from a navy jet high above the town of Lee Vining on the shores of Mono Lake, and the known wreckage of a Piper Aztec plane of with an amazing backstory involving drug trafficking, a crash landing after running out of gas, and the two passengers both miraculously surviving despite their severe injuries.
Despite covering the majority of the planned search area in the highly rugged and vertical Le Conte Canyon area of Kings Canyon National Park, the team did not discover the ejection seat or Steeves’ jet, and the mystery continues. What makes this mystery especially intriguing is the fact that the jet could have continued to travel a great distance after Lt. Steeves ejected, as it still had ample fuel and might have remained on autopilot. Despite this, since the majority of wrecks are found within several miles of the ejection landing sites, there is a high probability that the jet will eventually be found in the region near Knapsack Pass.
The team plans to return to the area in the future to continue the project, but in the meantime, it’s always worthwhile for hikers and climbers (especially in the Pallisades and Dusy Basin) to report any unusual metallic debris sighted to the park services. Finding wrecks is usually more about luck than planning, so if you explore off trail and keep your eyes open, maybe you will solve this long standing mystery simply by heading off the beaten path!
Editor’s Note: This story comes to us from Dr. Simon Donato and Melissa Rae Stewart of the Adventure Science team. All photos are credited to Adventure Science. Want to learn more about the Lt. Steeves mission and others of Adventure Science’s awesome adventures? Visit their website here.