The Mystery of Pittsburgh’s “Ghost Bomber”

Illustration of the B-25 bomber over the Monongahela River. <em>Courtesy of the B-25 Recovery Group.</em>
Illustration of the B-25 bomber over the Monongahela River. Courtesy of the B-25 Recovery Group.

Sixty years ago, at the height of our nation’s Cold War frenzy, an American military plane crashed into an icy Pittsburgh river, sparking one of our city’s most interesting – and enduring – unsolved mysteries.

On Jan. 31, 1956, Maj. William Dotson and five crew and passengers were flying over Pittsburgh on a routine training flight from Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada to pick up a cargo of airplane parts at Olmstead Air Force Base in Harrisburg, Pa. During the cross-country flight, the plane refueled at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma.

At around 4 p.m. on Jan. 31, the crew reported a loss of fuel and requested permission to land at Greater Pittsburgh Airport. When Maj. Dotson realized their fuel wouldn’t last, he instead asked to land at Allegheny County Airport.

At 4:11 p.m., with his fuel supply completely empty, his engine malfunctioning, and without any available airstrips nearby, Dotson was forced to make a hasty decision.

As his B-25 Mitchell bomber glided silently over the Homestead High Level Bridge (today’s Homestead Grays Bridge), Dotson made a wheels-up splash landing into the Monongahela River near the Glenwood Bridge in Hays.

All six crew members survived the crash, although only four were rescued from the 34-degree water. After floating with the plane for 11 minutes, the airmen found themselves in the icy water. Two men, Capt. Jean Ingraham and Staff Sgt. Walter Soocey, drowned while attempting to swim to shore, their bodies not found until months later.

In the ensuing hours, a Coast Guard cutter – the Forsythia – snagged a wing of the submerged plane while dragging its anchor. But the line slipped and the B-25 slid to its watery grave, never to be seen again.

The search efforts by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers continued for 14 days but the bomber was never recovered.

How does a 15-foot high B-25 medium bomber go missing in a 20-foot deep river? Several once-classified documents have helped to shed light on the B-25’s mysterious flight, but its final resting place is still unknown.

Conspiracy theories abound. Some suggest the bomber carried dangerous or mysterious cargo and that the U.S. military secretly recovered the plane’s wreckage immediately after the crash landing to hide its true contents.

Some believe the mystery bomber may have been carrying a nuclear weapon or even a UFO from Area 51 near Las Vegas.

Many believe the highly polluted Mon River corroded the aluminum exterior of the aircraft decades ago, only the steel engines and landing gear remaining.

Others cling to cover-up myths that range from the plane carrying Soviet agents to Las Vegas show girls destined to entertain senators in Washington, D.C.

In more recent years, a team of volunteers known as the B-25 Recovery Group worked with the Heinz History Center with the hopes of locating the lost plane.

Despite extensive research, sonar scanners, and remote-controlled cameras, the Recovery Group found no evidence of the plane during several attempts.

To this day, the “Ghost Bomber” remains one of Pittsburgh’s most famous unsolved mysteries.

The History Center’s B-25 “Ghost Bomber” collection includes newspaper clippings, documents, photos and film related to the crash and subsequent search efforts, and the official accident report, eyewitness accounts, and video of the Recovery Group’s efforts.

For more information, contact the Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center.

Font page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 1956. Courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Font page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 1956. Courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Missing B-25 bomber report. Courtesy of the Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center.
Missing B-25 bomber report. Courtesy of the Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center.

To see more pages from the report, please refer to this PDF.

50 thoughts on “The Mystery of Pittsburgh’s “Ghost Bomber”

  1. The illustration shows a Second World War B-25, not a 1956 version (no guns, natural metal, usually a solid nose)

    1. Yea but the illustration isn’t the most important part of the article, However it would be nice to have a 56 version Mitchell

  2. Wiconisco Creek is a tributary of the Susquehanna River in Schuylkill and Dauphin counties, Pennsylvania, in the United States. It is approximately 45.5 miles (73.2 km) long. It’s located over 250 miles East of Pittsburgh. I cannot find a Wisconsin River South of Pittsburgh.

  3. Before it was fully submerged and before it sank to the bottom it drifted downstream with the currents. No part of the plane would have been visible as it drifted beneath the surface prior to eventually ending on the bottom of the Ohio river. It could be miles downstream from the impact point.

      1. Especially if the plane crashed oncoming or adjacent to the river’s flow, but i’m not sure how likely the plane crashing adjacent to the river’a flow I see even possible, depending on the size of the river.

  4. Approximately 45 years ago, my brother, who was a young truck driver at the time, heard an older truck driver tell a story at J&L mill about how he and a few other truck drivers were asked that night of the crash to help haul the bomber out of the Monongahela and were advised that this was a matter of national security. At the time my brother related the story, my father expressed doubt that the crash ever happened, but agreed that if that if the older trucker’s story was true, it would explain why the wreckage was never found.

    1. Okay but i’m Sure at the truckers that towed the plane out would’ve at least been asked to return the plane, and if not the Mitchell is a fairly large plane, so it would be hard to hide from the authorities, especially if they knew the what a 56 Mitchell looked like

  5. I, too, have heard of people who say there were witnesses that saw the plane being recovered during the night. There is no way the plane could have sank into the Wisconsin River. The Wisconsin River is not an actual river as we know it, but is what geologists refer to as the Wisconsin Glacial Flow. Glaciers were coming and going in the Northern Hemisphere about 2.5 million years ago. By about 798,000 B.C., they had advanced into Pennsylvania, moving through cycles of advance and retreat every 100,000 years or so. As they retreated, miles of ice melted and sent torrents of water cutting into the landscape, carrying huge amounts of sand and rock with them, Jones said.

    “As the melts slowed, they lost their ability to carry lots of sediment, and so lots of sediment sort of gets stranded in the valley floor in kind of random piles,” he said.

    Downtown, the North Side, the South Side — all those long, flat areas on either side of the river that became the bedrock of industry, hearth and tradition — weren’t divined by good planning, but built on sand.

    “The sediments are so porous and permeable that if you dig a hole in them, the water just soaks in super fast,” Jones said, “and it’s mostly just water soaking in from the rivers.”

    Some people have mistakenly dubbed this water supply “the fourth river,” as if you could rent a kayak and shoot through a hidden cavern. Legend has it that the Point State Park fountain draws from its estruary. That would be cool, but it’s not true. The fountain runs on treated city water and the fourth river is really just 50 feet of sand and gravel on top of rock.

    1. Yes there is an actual Wisconsin River its headwaters come out of a lake in Northern Wisconsin and empties into tbe Mississippi River near Praraie Du Chein Wisconsin.

    2. My husband grew up in hazelwood and his mother told him the army recovered it because it contained something to do with nuclear warfare. They actually built a road to remove the plane. The road still exists today.

        1. I remember having a conversation with a River Rescue diver and they mentioned something about a plane being at the bottom of one of the rivers, even claimed to have seen it. Either there’s more then one plane that had crashed into one of the three rivers or all of the conspiracy theories are just that, theories.

  6. My father was working at Masta Machine.
    He saw this land also saw it recovered that night. He was working a double.
    I have tried to give my dads story but nobody seems to want to here.
    I will be glad to share his testimony as it was a story he told several times.

    1. My grandfather was a master machinist who also worked at Mesta Machine and I remember hearing him tell stories of watching that plane ditch in the river.

  7. This is an intriguing incident that could become a fantastic thriller – I worked with bob johns one of the key investigators of this event and spent much time discussing scenarios and evidence – quite interesting – we will see what we will see —- maybe ????

  8. I’m considering raising money to fund finding it. I’m looking for the non profit that originally put effort into finding it so we didn’t waste time on things already done. I’d love to work with them but am having a hard time having calls or emails returned. Any contact info for any members of that group would be appreciated.

    Thanks Brian Shafer

  9. It’s a shame the show fact or faked isn’t still on. You could probably submit this to those guys. I would love to see something come out of it. But however, I agree with the currents, it’s probably down here in Wheeling somewhere by now. Or drifted elsewhere in the Ohio River by now.

  10. Does anyone remember the Jaques Cousteau expedition on the river from Wheeling to Clairton. Found nothing. I seem to remember hearing rumors that it was recovered and taken through J@L Steel in Hazelwood.

  11. Col. William Dotson, pilot of the B-25, died on April 20, 2016. He was my daughter-in-law’s paternal grandfather. Rachel was very familiar with the “30 Seconds Over Pittsburgh” legends, through both her father and grandfather. Col. Dotson never admitted that anything was unusual about the flight — he apparently rarely if ever discussed it. So the mystery of what really happened — how a decorated WWII combat pilot could misjudge the amount of fuel in his plane — will never be solved. Rest In Peace, Col Dotson!!!

  12. C’mon. A big plane in fairly shallow water? Of course it was recovered. Who knows why all the secrecy but the plane had to have been removed early on.

  13. I really don’t know if this has anything to do with this story or not but I know a place of employment that I have worked had a huge metal building and then had another huge metal building built inside of that one,that had an airplane that was tore completely down for investigation this place is in Washington County Pennsylvania again I don’t know if it has anything to do with it or not, but it may just add to the mystery.

  14. I am doing an upcoming podcast episode on this topic in April of this year. I have not had any luck getting a response from the Recovery Group, however if anyone has stories, comments, or interesting angles to this story please feel free to reach out to me directly

    Thanks so much!

    1. You may want to research my grandfather business. Charles Zubik he had squatting rights on the North shore from the west end up to he Heinz. He was involved in everything that required a tug,

  15. And so, MYSTERY SOLVED – on a CBS television report on this plane, retrieved from the Monongohela and taken back to base, refurbished. Flew with other bombers in formation at the 150th commemoration in France recently.

  16. Picture shows props turning. If he was dead stick, the props should have been feathered and not turning. Oh well, its just an artists representation. Not really a big deal.

  17. It’s hilarious to read the things people make up, the laws of physics aren’t understood by most people. A B25 is heavy, filled with water it’s exponentially heavier. Barge mounted cranes large enough to lift the plane aren’t easily found, even if they found one the plane would break into pieces. If it was recovered it would have taken hundreds of people, I’m sure someone would have spilled the beans.

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