A plane flying cross-country from New York City 70 years ago disappeared over Lake Michigan, killing all 58 on board.
It is not known whether Northwest Airlines Flight 2501 navigated the skies over Southwestern Pennsylvania on June 23, 1950, but Washington County Airport will be a prominent backdrop for a factual retelling of that doomed excursion.
“America’s Vanished Airliner” is the title of the tragedy to be featured on the Discovery Channel at 8 p.m. Wednesday. It is an episode of the cable network’s “Expedition Unknown” series, hosted by Josh Gates. “Expedition Unknown” is just that – it focuses on historic, scientific and archaeological sites that are either enshrouded in mystery or highlighted by new information.
This week’s installment falls in the mystery category. A few bodies and some debris were found in Lake Michigan seven decades ago, but nothing related to the disaster has been recovered since.
The hourlong program Wednesday was filmed at the county airport over several days in early September. But why did they film the project there?
Enter Tim Chopp, Army guy, Vietnam veteran and 1962 Trinity High School graduate. Chopp (pronounced “Chope”) also is a longtime aviator – he learned to fly at Greene County Airport at 18. He owns a C-54 plane called Spirit of Freedom, which, he said, is the military version of the ill-fated DC-4.
Chopp, 75, is the founder and president of the Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation, which strives to preserve and promote that humanitarian airlift effort following World War II. He flies Spirit of Freedom nationwide to support that cause. Because of his experience, Discovery Channel reached out to the Toms River, N.J., resident last year.
“They contacted me to see if I could fly the plane and re-create scenes,” said Chopp, who grew up in Lone Pine. “They wanted me to fly to Michigan, but it was too expensive, and asked about a shorter flight. I said, ‘Try Washington Airport.’ I wouldn’t let that go by without thinking about my hometown.”
Chopp pitched the reenactment proposal to Bob Griffin, economic development director of the Washington County Redevelopment Authority, which operates the airport in an agreement with the county. Griffin said the county was interested in hosting the project, and he and Chopp ultimately met a Discovery Channel team at the facility, which sits mostly in South Franklin Township with a sliver in North Franklin Township.
An agreement was forged.
Sections of the airport will be identifiable, and not so identifiable, to local viewers, as cosmetic changes were made to essentially transform the location into a TV production set. The Aviation Business Center was transformed into a 1950s airline ticket counter and an air traffic control tower, and actors used the center’s hangar offices to change costumes and have makeup applied.
Runway 9-27 was used to film the flight reenactment. It features Chopp’s aircraft, which he said is the only four-propeller, engine-driven plane used in the U.S. for historical purposes. He added, proudly, that he has flown slightly more than 600 missions in the craft, including 21 annual flights in Kitty Hawk, N.C., to honor the Wright brothers.
The cause of the disappearance of Flight 2501 is unknown. In fact, there is little information other than 55 passengers and three crew members were on a plane scheduled to stop in Minneapolis, then Seattle, and that bits of evidence were found in the lake. Chopp, however, has a theory.
“When I got my college degree, I wrote a thesis titled ‘Modern Aircraft vs. Violent Storms,’” he said. “ I think the pilot got into storm downdrafts that were so bad, they literally pushed (the plane) into the lake.
“Thunderstorms could rip apart planes then, and can rip apart modern planes.”
“America’s Vanished Airliner” promises to be compelling viewing for anyone who flips to the Discovery Channel on Wednesday evening. This is an incredible story, and an incredibly horrifying one.
Although it won’t be evident to viewers outside the tri-state, the reenactment also will shine a light on Washington County, which pleases Commission Chairwoman Diana Irey Vaughan.
“We’re very fortunate to be selected as the host airport for the show,” she said. “This allows us to be seen in other parts of the country, and that’s a win.
“This is a story about history, and Washington County is very historic.”