The Mystery of Pittsburgh’s Missing Bomber

Jan. 31, 1956: If you’ve lived in Pittsburgh more than a week, you’ve no doubt heard about the “missing bomber” — the B-25 that crashed into the Monongahela River late on a cold winter afternoon in 1956. When it was suggested to us at the Digs a few months ago that we search our files for pictures from the event, we were intrigued. Perhaps we’d discover some long-forgotten images and uncover clues. Perhaps we would solve Pittsburgh’s most enduring mystery.

Very quickly, we found notes indicating the existence of a photo file called “Monongahela River — B-25 plane crash, January 31, 1956.” We dug into the archive. For days we searched, looking in every conceivable category: Monongahela River, plane crashes, planes, bombers, lost bombers, rivers, aviation. We searched for files containing the names of the crew members and those who helped in the rescue and recovery operations.

We found nothing.

Like the plane itself, the file containing news pictures of the event had disappeared. Those of us on the Digs team looked at each other uneasily. Perhaps the file was clandestinely carried away in the dead of night and is now secured in a locked cabinet at a top-secret military location.

It was a fun thought. Most likely, the file was simply misplaced or lost. Unfortunately, our efforts to shed light on the missing bomber episode resulted only in a deepening of a decades-old mystery.

That’s OK. Like all Pittsburghers, we get a kick out of telling the story and trading theories about what happened to the plane. But we cannot forget the tragedy of the event — two crew members drowned before they could be rescued.

The B-25 was enroute from Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada to Olmsted Air Force Base near Harrisburg. Over Western Pennsylvania the plane inexplicably ran out of fuel. Pilot Maj. William Dotson executed an emergency landing in the Monongahela River just past the Homestead High Level Bridge.

All six crew members survived the landing. Four were rescued. The bodies of the other two were found in the days after the crash. For two weeks, authorities tried unsuccessfully to locate the B-25, which had sunk somewhere near Beck’s Run. The bomber seemed to have vanished without a trace.

What could have happened to the aircraft? Several theories are floating around. Some make sense; some are bizarre. If you want to learn more, check out the video we produced. You’ll find it on the blog post above this one. It depicts the crash, using some pretty cool animation.

And as for the picture file, we’ll continue searching — and speculating. Hmmmm. We’re thinking “Area 51.”

In this episode of the video series “Pittsburgh History,” we explore the city’s most enduring mystery.

Steve, a writer and photographer at the Post-Gazette, has lived and worked in Pittsburgh so long that some of his images appear on "The Digs."