View On Urban Legends

by Charlene Paul

Most people have heard of the Bermuda Triangle in the Atlantic Ocean where ships and planes have mysteriously gone missing for decades. But if you asked them about a similar place in Nevada, they would probably just shrug their shoulders. The Nevada Triangle lies in an area of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and covers approximately 25,000-square miles of underpopulated wilderness. It is estimated that 2,000 planes, flown by experienced pilots disappeared under mysterious circumstances in the Nevada Triangle in the past 70 years, with many of the crash sites never found.

The Triangle spans from Las Vegas, Nevada in the southeast to Fresno, California in the west, and connects to Reno, Nevada at the top. To intensify the mystery, the military’s top-secret Area 51, with its conspiracy theories of UFOs and paranormal activity lies within this rugged wilderness.

Probably one of the most famous planes to go missing was flown by record-setter, sailor, and adventurer Steve Fossett. On September 3, 2007, Fossett set out in a single-engine Bellanca Super Decathlon. His course took him over Nevada’s Great Basin Desert. He took off, but never returned. Four months later, he was declared dead. In September, 2008, Fossett’s identification cards were found in the Sierra Nevada Mountains by a hiker. The crash site, along with two bones belonging to Fossett were discovered a few days later.

One of the earliest stories of planes being lost in the Triangle dates back 70 years when a B-24 bomber crashed in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1943. The bomber was piloted by 2nd Lt. Willis Turvey and co-piloted by 2nd Lt. Robert M. Hester. It also carried a four-passenger crew that included 2nd Lt. William Thomas Cronin, navigator, and 2nd Lt. Ellis H. Fish, bombardier. Sgt. Robert Bursey served as engineer, and Sgt. Howard A. Wandtke served as the radio operator. The flight was supposed to be a routine night training flight from Fresno, California’s Hammer Field to Bakersfield, California, on to Tucson, Arizona, and back to Fresno.

When the plane didn’t show up the next day, an extensive search was started. Nine B-24 Bombers were sent to find the missing plane. Instead of finding the missing bomber, another bomber went missing. The whereabouts of squadron commander Capt. William Darden, his plane, and the rest of his crew would remain a mystery for 12 years, when Huntington Lake Reservoir was drained in 1955 in order for repairs to be made to the dam.

According to the investigation, Darden had experienced wind turbulence and lost hydraulic pressure. The two soldiers who parachuted from the crippled plane and survived told investigators that Darden saw a snow-covered clearing and told his crew to jump. The investigators concluded that Darden mistook the frozen lake for a clearing. Statements by the survivors said that the lake wasn’t solidly frozen. When the bomber was finally found, it was 190 feet below the water with five of its crew members still at their stations.

Clinton Hester, the father of co-pilot, Robert Hester from the first missing bomber began a private search to find out what happened to his son. That search lasted 14 years. Clinton died of a heart attack in 1959 without finding his son or the missing plane. A year later, a United States Geological survey researcher working in the area found the airplane wreckage in and near an unnamed lake. Today that lake is known as Hester Lake.

In May, 1957, another military plane went missing when Air Force Lt. David Steeves took off from Hamilton Air Force Base near San Francisco in a T-33 training jet. On its way to Arizona, the plane disappeared. After an unsuccessful search, the Air Force declared the 23-year-old pilot officially dead. However, dressed in filthy, tattered clothing, looking gaunt and starved, Steeves reappeared 54 days later.

Lt. Leonard C. Lydon safely parachuted after his Army fighter squadron got lost over the Sierra Nevadas in 1941. The plane wreckage was never found.

Charles Ogle, a wealthy real estate developer who took off from Oakland, California in 1964, vanished without a trace on his way to Las Vegas.

As you can imagine, the mystery of the Nevada Triangle is ripe with conspiracy theories, especially with its connection to Area 51 where the United States Air Force is known to test all sorts of secret prototype aircraft. Many experts believe, however, that the disappearances can be attributed to the geography and atmospheric conditions. The Sierra Nevada Mountain range runs perpendicular to the Jet Stream which, coupled with sheer, high altitude peaks and a wedge-shaped range create unpredictable winds and downdrafts. Known as the Mountain Wave, this volatile weather condition can rip aircraft from the air, crashing it to the ground.

Of course, pilot error, mechanical failure, or inexperience flying over the rugged mountain terrain could also explain the phenomenon that is the Nevada Triangle. But that would take the mystery out of the legend.

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