Finding Northwest Flight 4422

Air Line Pilot, October 1999, page 18

By Theresa Mattick


F/O Kevin McGregor (Delta) stands on the debris field near Mt. Sanford, Alaska, looking toward the summit and the accident site.

When the U.S. Civil Aeronautics Board issued its Accident Investigation Report on the crash of Northwest Airlines Flight 4422--a DC-4 demolished by impact and fire when it hit the slope of Mt. Sanford, Alaska, on March 12, 1948--the agency declared that the wreckage was "inaccessible from either the ground or the air."

On the morning following the crash, during a flight over the area, a group of accident investigation officials spotted the burned wreckage of the northwest aircraft. According to the cab report, the wreckage was located in a "small glacial cirque, the walls of which were avalanche slopes." Snow and ice were constantly falling into the cirque from an overhanging glacier, and it was obvious that the wreckage, identified by the northwest airlines insignia on the vertical fin, would be completely covered within a matter of days.

But after a half-century of slow glacier movement, a decade of detailed research, and several search attempts, two ALPA pilots have finally located the wreckage of the legendary northwest aircraft, which had remained hidden in the isolated Alaskan terrain for 51 years.

Possible nose gear landing strut from Flight 4422.  Rust has only recently begun and no deplating had occurred indicating recent exposure to the atmosphere.

First officers Marc Millican (Northwest) and Kevin Mcgregor (Delta) found the wreckage of an airplane in 1997. And in July 1999, on a return expedition to the area of the wreckage, the pilots confirmed that it was that of NC-95422, which had crashed shortly after taking off from anchorage on its journey from China to New York, killing the 24 passengers and six crewmembers aboard the chartered flight.

A long journey

The journey to reach the wreckage of Flight 4422 began in 1986, when F/O Millican started flying for Northwest Airlines. "That's when I first started hearing stories about Flight 4422," he says. And he has been intrigued with the mystery of the lost flight ever since. In 1991, F/O Millican moved to Anchorage when Northwest Airlines opened a pilot base there, and he began researching all of the details of the Northwest flight.

Unbeknownst to F/O Millican, a friend from the U.S. Air Force Reserves, F/O McGregor, was equally intrigued by the mystery of Flight 4422 and also was researching the 1948 accident on his own. During the spring of 1994, F/Os Millican and McGregor were both majors flying C-141s with the 710th Military Airlift Squadron. While they talked together in the Officer's Club at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., their conversation turned to Flight 4422 and revelations that they were each quietly researching the 1948 crash.

"I know exactly where it crashed," F/O Millican told his friend. And that was the start of their joint quest to find the legendary DC-4.

Search attempts

The pilots undertook the search on their own--a completely independent project that they had to fit in around their respective flying schedules. The extreme Alaskan weather also meant that they had only a brief window of time during the summer when they could possibly reach the area, and even then the weather is unpredictable, suddenly changing for the worse.

The pilots made their first search attempt in 1994. Although the once-inaccessible wreckage had slid about 3,000 feet down the side of Mt. Sanford, the pilots could not see the debris from the air. The wreckage was an arduous day's hike from the pilots' remote landing site.

During their first expedition, the pilots flew their Super Cub to the suspected crash site, but they couldn't cross the raging Sanford River on foot to search further. F/O McGregor returned in 1995 on a solo expedition, and although he found a closer landing zone and was able to climb to the base of the icefall, he did not find any of the wreckage. Both pilots returned again in 1996, but before they could find anything, a snowstorm cut short their trip.

During their 1997 expedition, the pilots first climbed to the base of the icefalls, but they found nothing there.

F/O Marc Millican (Northwest) with the Pratt & Whitney R-200 engine No. 2SD13G at the site.

"We stayed overnight at the base of the icefalls," F/O McGregor explains. "The next morning, we decided to climb down through the center of the glacier, where ice movement and crevasses make hiking very dangerous. After a time, we started finding debris, obviously from an aircraft, but we had no idea if it was the one we were looking for."

And again, in 1998, the pilots returned to the site and found a few more small pieces of wreckage. "We were about 99 percent sure we had located the proper wreck, but we still weren't 100 percent certain," F/O McGregor says.

So the pilots redoubled their research efforts to finally confirm that they had reached the crash site of Northwest Airlines Flight 4422.

Positive identification

Mt. Sanford, located about 180 miles east of Anchorage, is now a part of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve--a vast wilderness area managed by the U.S. National Park Service. After their 1998 expedition, F/Os Millican and McGregor applied for a special Park Service permit that would allow them to remove a few items from the crash site to try to make a positive identification.

Before the pilots could get the permit, however, they had to get permission from the family members of the people who had been killed in Flight 4422. "We were able to get letters of permission from 17 of the families," F/O McGregor says.

In July, F/Os Millican and McGregor returned to the site. "We recovered twelve items of specific nature positively identifying the wreckage," F/O McGregor says. The items included an engine plate from one of the Pratt & Whitney engines and a knife with the Northwest logo imprinted on it.

"We also found human remains--a forearm with hand, remarkably well-preserved," F/O McGregor adds. The pilots documented the human remains but left them untouched. (State officials later retrieved them and are trying to identify who they belonged to.)

After completing their survey of the debris area, F/Os Millican and McGregor climbed the 11 miles back down to their Super Cub, returned to the airport in Gulkana, and notified the National Park Service of the results of their expedition.

"After all of the research, when we came across the wreckage and were finally able to positively identify it as Flight 4422--it was unbelievable,"
F/O Millican says.

Hamilton Standard model 6507-A-O propeller found in the debris field.

F/Os Millican and McGregor say that they were overwhelmed by the news media response after they announced that they had indeed found Northwest Flight 4422. In the days following their discovery, they fielded hundreds of phone calls from journalists from around the United States.

Many of the news reports focused on rumors of gold. Alaskans had dubbed the crash the "payroll plane," because the 24 U.S. merchant seamen killed in the crash were rumored to have been paid in gold bullion for delivering a tanker ship to Taiwan--4422 was a charter flight bringing the sailors home.

"But there wasn't any gold," the pilots say. "We have proof that the American sailors were to be paid when they returned to their New York employer."

Family closure

F/Os Millican and McGregor say that the response of the surviving family members has been the most rewarding part of their long journey. "That's where the real gold is," F/O Millican says. "We've received letters from so many family members--sons, daughters, cousins, and others--saying that it has helped bring closure for them," he adds.

Before the pilots' July expedition, they had contacted the families of 17 victims; and since the news media reports of the flight's discovery, family members of 7 more of the crash victims have contacted the pilots.

"We've been in touch with families of all six of the airline crewmembers killed in the accident," F/O McGregor says.

The Northwest Airlines crew included three ALPA members: Capt. James Van Cleef, Capt. Robert Petry, and First Officer J.J. Stickel. The other crewmembers were navigator W.W. Worsley, flight mechanic Donald Rector, and purser R.J. Haslett. During World War II, all three of the pilots had flown as part of Northwest's U.S. Army contract operation and had flown the Alaskan route numerous times.

F/Os Millican, left, and McGregor (Delta) at Gulkana Airport, Alaska.

Capt. Petry, age 30, was in the left seat for the takeoff from Anchorage. F/O McGregor says that Capt. Petry had planned for the flight to be his last--he intended to retire from flying when he returned home to St. Paul, Minn. F/O Stickel, as well, had planned for Flight 4422 to be his last--he was building a house in Ohio where he was going to return with his new bride.

The 24 merchant seamen aboard Flight 4422 were employed by the Overseas Tankship Corporation, which sent T-2-type oil tankers to various ports in Asia, where lower-paid Chinese sailors would take over. The seamen would sail ships from New York to various Asian ports, fly home via Alaska and Minneapolis, get paid in New York, and then some started similar voyages all over again.

"But we've learned from the families that many of the seamen had also planned for this to be their last trip," F/O McGregor adds.

Mystery remains

In the accident report released on July 28, 1948, the Civil Aeronautics Board concluded that the probable cause of the accident was "the pilot's failure to see Mt. Sanford, which was probably obscured by clouds or the Aurora Borealis or both while flying a course off the airway."

The CAB report explains that on the Anchorage to Edmonton segment of the flight, the airway between the Gulkana (Alaska) and Snag (Canada) radio points is deflected to the north to provide a safe offset from the 16,208-foot Mt. Sanford peak.

Pilots often flew south of the airway so they could make a straight-line course from Gulkana to Snag. In clear weather, pilots could safely circumnavigate Mt. Sanford. Pilot reports from that night said the ceiling was unlimited and visibility was 50 miles.

The aircraft crashed at its cruising altitude of 11,000 feet, and at about 200 miles an hour, into the peak of Mt. Sanford. Shortly after the fiery explosion on the mountainside, Layton A. Bennett and an observer took off in a Luscombe from the Gulkana airport to investigate.

AlaskaPic6.jpg (214519 bytes)

A ring, found by an Alaska state trooper near human remains in the debris field, has "Iran 1946" engraved in it.  F/Os Millican and McGregor would like to hear anyone with information about it.

According to Bennett, who told the CAB and the more recent searchers, the northern lights appeared as hanging curtains obscuring Mt. Sanford and were particularly bright that March night in 1948. "It was like looking into a car's headlights," says Bennett, the father of three sons, two of whom--Eric and Barton--are Alaska Airlines pilots.

"The airplane was most definitely off course," F/O McGregor adds, "but nobody will ever know for sure what happened--it's all just speculation."

F/O Millican says that he has been asked hundred of times since finding the wreckage in July, "Why? Why spend so much time and effort to locate the crash site?" He explains that as a Northwest pilot flying the same routes to the Far East, he felt that the mystery of Flight 4422 was something that had to be solved.

"Our goal was always just to find the wreck--to help bring closure for the 30 families," F/O Millican says.

Both the National Park Service and the pilots who uncovered the wreckage of Flight 4422 say that they aren't releasing any details of the location of the Flight 4422 debris field. They consider the isolated mountain site to be a burial ground--to be left undisturbed--for the men who lost their lives during the crash of Flight 4422.