Crew finds submerged wreckage of missing jet that mysteriously disappeared more than 50 years ago

Fifty-three years after a private plane with five men on board disappeared on a snowy night in Vermont, experts believe they have found the wreckage of the long-lost plane in Lake Champlain.

The business plane disappeared shortly after departing Burlington Airport for Providence, Rhode Island, on January 27, 1971. On board were two crew members and three employees of the development company Cousin’s Properties of Atlanta, Georgia, who were working on a development project. in Burlington.

The initial search for the ten-seat Jet Commander turned up no wreckage and the lake froze over four days after the aircraft was lost. At least seventeen other searches took place until last month, underwater searcher Garry Kozak and a team using a remote-controlled vehicle found the wreckage of a jetliner with the same modified paint scheme in the lake, near where the radio control tower last saw the plane had followed. disappeared. Sonar images have been captured of the wreckage found in 200 feet of water near Juniper Island.

“With all that evidence, we are 99% absolutely certain,” Kozak said Monday.

The discovery of the wreckage gives the victims’ families “some closure and answers a lot of the questions they had,” he said.

Although family members are grateful and relieved that the plane has been found, the discovery also raises more questions and old wounds.

“To have found this now … it’s a peaceful feeling, but at the same time it’s a very sad feeling,” Barbara Nikita, niece of pilot George Nikita, said in an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday. “We know what happened. We’ve seen a few photos. I think we’re having trouble with that now.”

Frank Wilder’s father, also Frank Wilder, was a passenger on the plane.

“Not knowing for 53 years whether the plane was in the lake or maybe on a mountainside somewhere nearby was disturbing,” said Wilder, who lives outside Philadelphia. “And again, I’m relieved to know where the plane is. but unfortunately this raises other questions and we have to work on that now.”

When the ice melted in the spring of 1971, debris from the plane was found at Shelburne Point, according to Kozak. An underwater search in May 1971 failed to find the wreckage. According to Kozak, at least 17 other searches took place, including in 2014. At the time, authorities were spurred by curiosity after the disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines plane that year, hoping that new technology would find the wreckage, but it didn’t.

Barbara Nikita, who lives in Southern California, and her cousin Kristina Nikita Coffey, who lives in Tennessee, led the recent search efforts and contacted family members of other victims.

What was fascinating about reconnecting with the group was: “everyone had pieces of the pie and the puzzle: when we started sharing information and sharing documents, we gained a much greater understanding and perspective of the information, how we were all affected by it. ” said Charles Williams, whose father, Robert Ransom Williams III, an employee of Cousin’s Properties, was on the plane.

He called Kozar a hero for his dedication to finding the plane. After the search was unsuccessful in 2014, Kozar became intrigued and searched a sonar survey of the lake created by the Champlain Maritime Museum and Middlebury College. He found four anomalies at the bottom of the lake. In 2022, a colleague, Hans Hug of Sonar Search and Recovery in Exeter, New Hampshire, and his friend who has an ROV, said they wanted to search for the plane, Kozar said. The team found a plane, but it turned out to be a military plane. Last winter, Kozar searched the sonar again and found another anomaly, which the team discovered last month was likely the plane wreckage.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating whether the plane was involved, Williams said. The NTSB does not conduct salvage operations, which would be expensive, Williams said.

“Whether there are any tangible remains, and I hate to say it that way, and worth disturbing, that’s a decision we’ll have to figure out later, and part of what we’re unpacking now” , he said. you start to think about that.”

The victims’ relatives plan to hold a memorial service now that they know where the plane is.