Filmmaker joins star-crossed search for a 70-year-old plane crash in Yukon

In 1950, a U.S. military plane went missing, taking 44 people with it. Now, a filmmaker is joining the search for the missing wreckage.

Andrew Gregg is making a documentary about missing plane crash that claimed 44 lives

A propeller left behind by one of four planes to crash searching for the missing Skymaster plane. Documentary filmmaker Andrew Gregg has joined the search for the 70-year-old missing wreck. (Andrew Gregg)

For 70 years, it's been an enduring mystery.

In the winter of 1950, a U.S. military plane, a C-54 Skymaster, went missing in the skies above Yukon.

On board were 44 people, mostly military personnel — except for three civilians, including a pregnant mother, travelling with her toddler.

None were ever seen again.

"It checked in … just across the Yukon border, and nobody's seen it since," Andrew Gregg, a documentary filmmaker, told the host of CBC Yukon's Airplay. "Not even a single rivet."

Gregg has now joined the decades-long search for the missing plane as part of a new documentary called Skymaster Down.

He joins a long line of amateur investigators and professional search and rescue teams to search for the elusive wreck.

"What we're trying to do is tell the story of that missing plane, the Yukoners still searching for it, and the families that are still waiting for answers," he said.

Watch the trailer for Skymaster Down:

Largest search and rescue operation in history

When the plane first went missing, the resulting search and rescue operation was the largest in American history. But it, too, was ill-fated.

"Four planes crashed in the search," Gregg explained.

Those crashes — near Aishihik, Yukon, on Mount Lorne, near Beaver Creek's airstrip, and south of Whitehorse — are well-known. The pilots all walked away, unharmed.

But the expensive toll reveals the difficulty of searching Yukon's mountainous landscape for remains of a wreck now nearly a century old.

At the time the plane went missing, the resulting search was the largest in North American history. (Submitted by Andrew Gregg)

"At the beginning, I thought, well, let's go find the plane," said Gregg. "And now, you realize just how daunting it is, not only with the size of the country you have to cover, but the fact that it hasn't turned up."

Air wrecks are common enough in Yukon that a database exists with locations of all known crash sites, so those flying overhead don't panic and think someone is in need of help.

The database already contains more than 500 crash sites. But the missing Skymaster isn't one of them.

"Stuff turns up here," Gregg said, "and this plane just refuses to turn up."

The wrecked C-47 near Aishihik. Yukon's mountains are littered with more than 500 historical wrecks like these, making it all the more surprising the missing Skymaster hasn't turned up. (Andrew Gregg)

Three theories for missing wreck

For the past six years, the Yukon Civil Air Search and Rescue Association has led annual searches for the wreck, turning up nothing.

Gregg said the people he's interviewed for his documentary generally fall into "three camps" regarding the missing wreck.

"I switch daily, depending on the last person I talk to," he laughed.

The first thinks the plane travelled off-course and crashed in the St. Elias mountain range, not explored in the initial search. They say the wreck has by now been swallowed up by a glacier.

Another group thinks it's in a difficult to access ravine, somewhere along the initial flight path. The final group thinks it's at the bottom of a lake somewhere.

It's that last option Gregg is exploring first. He's taking a team of SONAR specialists to Yukon's Wellesley Lake, where "persistent rumours" say a large wreck sits at the bottom.

"I don't think it's our plane, but the rumours won't go away," he said.

Gregg said part of what he hopes to accomplish is to draw attention to the efforts of surviving family members to locate their relatives' final resting place. (Skymaster Down/Facebook)

Bringing closure to the families

Gregg said part of what he hopes to accomplish with his documentary is to tell the story of the missing passengers.

"Somewhere out there, there is the wreckage that is also a graveyard," he said.

The surviving family members have all approached local officials asking to restart a search, Gregg said. One even wrote to the White House.

"They're getting nowhere," he said. "No one can get the military back to do a second search. And you can imagine, with all the technology at their disposal, they could probably find it."

But until they do that, he said, it's an inspiring story of "indefatigable" enthusiasts, combing the mountains for the lost wreck.

"This whole story is fascinating," he said, "even without the discovery."

Written by John Last, based on an interview by Dave White