A shipwreck? No, it's a jet that vanished 53 years ago. Undersea searcher shares his story

Updated

A search team says they discovered the wreckage of a private jet missing for more than half a century on the floor of Lake Champlain.

For decades authorities believed the plane carrying two crew members and three employees of an Atlanta real estate firm had crashed into the lake as it headed from Burlington, Vermont, to Providence, Rhode Island. In more than a dozen operations since 1971, each using increasingly sophisticated and newer technology, searchers tried to locate the aircraft, but always came up empty.

Now, experts say, the long-suspected fate of the plane and the five people on board has been confirmed.

“I'm just thrilled that we discovered it, and I'm really happy for the family members that are still around,” Garry Kozak, the undersea searcher who led the recent effort, told USA TODAY. “They were hoping for many years that this would be located, and hopefully this brings some closure.”

Wreckage found in the depths of Lake Champlain that experts believe to be a jet that went missing 53 years ago. The private plane vanished after it left Burlington, Vermont, on a snowy evening in late January 1971.
Wreckage found in the depths of Lake Champlain that experts believe to be a jet that went missing 53 years ago. The private plane vanished after it left Burlington, Vermont, on a snowy evening in late January 1971.

Snowy weather, missing jet

It was a snowy evening in January 1971 when the team from Cousins Properties real estate left Burlington, Vermont.

After a successful takeoff around 8 p.m. and normal communications between the crew and the control tower, the jet made a turn over Lake Champlain, which runs from the borders of Vermont and New York to Canada, and extends 14 miles across at its widest point.

Not long into the flight, the controller lost all radar contact with the plane, according to Kozak. No mayday or emergency communication was ever received. Officials suspected that the plane had most likely crashed into the lake, though there was no physical evidence at the time.

Immediate searches concentrated on Lake Champlain, with aircrafts flying over the surface in hopes of finding the jet or its passengers, according to Kozak. Authorities were set to bring in a submarine to scour the lake, but temperatures dropped and the lake froze over, delaying searches until the spring.

Months later, after some of the ice melted, debris from the plane was found on Shelburne Point, just southwest of Burlington, according to Kozak. A team combed the area to no avail. And so followed days, months and years of unsuccessful searches. Between 1971 and 2014, more than 17 failed attempts were made at finding the jet.

How was the jet discovered?

Enter Kozak.

The undersea search expert, who has previously assisted in the discovery of sunken ships and crashed planes, was first introduced to the story of the missing jet in the 1980s. Over the decades, the 77-year-old kept up with the search efforts but he did not get involved until 2014, when he heard an autonomous underwater vehicle scanned the depths of the lake and found nothing.

Convinced the plane could be found, Kozak got to work. He contacted a pair of researchers who had conducted a low-resolution scan of the lake to find shipwrecks. They agreed to share the data, which proved vital as Kozak used the scan to identify four "suspicious anomalies," one of which eventually led him to the wreckage.

In 2022, Kozak joined up with two colleagues – Hans Hug and Bruce Stebbins – who agreed to help scour the locations using a remote operated vehicle. Their first dive was unsuccessful. But last July, the men returned to the lake, and, during their second search, discovered a plane. They initially thought it was the corporate jet they were looking for, but upon closer inspection it appeared to be a military aircraft, as indicated by some of the stencils.

Unfatigued, Kozak went through the sonar data again and picked out one location west of Juniper Island, about three miles southwest of Burlington, as a target of interest. On May 19, Kozak and Hug returned to the lake to inspect the area with Hug's high resolutions sonar system. The search revealed a large debris field that was "very representative of a jet aircraft crash," Kozak said.

While there was little doubt that this was the jet – especially considering the size of the debris field – the men wanted photographic evidence. Within a week, a remote operated vehicle captured a broken plane fuselage, painted white with red and black accent striping – the same custom paint job as the missing jet. Nearby were the remains of two turbine jet engines along with a broken wing.

"With all indications it's absolutely the right plane," Kozak said.

Discovery leaves families with mixed emotions

But while the mystery of the missing jet has been solved, families of the men who died in the crash are now grappling with reopened wounds and new questions.

“To have this found now ... it’s peaceful feeling, at the same time it’s a very sad feeling,” Barbara Nikitas, niece of pilot George Nikita, told the Associated Press. “We know what happened. We’ve seen a couple of photos. We’re struggling I think with that now.”

Frank Wilder's father, also Frank Wilder, was on the jet when it went down. The younger Frank Wilder told the Associated Press that while the uncertainty was "distressing," the plane's the discovery brings a set of complicated questions.

“I’m feeling relieved that I know where the plane is now but unfortunately it’s opening other questions and we have to work on those now," he told the AP.

NTSB reviews findings

Kozak said he shared videos of the underwater debris field with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to assist their forensic team in determining, with as much certainty as possible, that the wreckage is the same jet that disappeared 53 years ago.

The agency said in an email to USA TODAY it received information about the plane and the crash from the Federal Aviation Administration, and that it plans on examining the debris as well as any wreckage that may be recovered.

"We will be evaluating the specifics of what was found, and the degree of certainty to which we are able to positively link it back to the wreckage that was located," said NTSB spokesperson Peter C. Knudson. "Following that, if and when any of that wreckage were recovered, we would determine what level of examination would be appropriate given what is recovered and what condition it is in."

Meantime, Kozak shared the exact coordinates of the debris field only with the families of the victims.

"Out of respect, the location will be kept confidential because it is a grave site," he said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Searcher tells story behind finding 53-year-old jet in Lake Champlain

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