The Mystery of Lt. David Steeves
And the story of the Canadian who is trying to solve the decades old mystery
By TJ Murphy
On an early weekday in July of 1954, starved to the bone, ankles swollen and clothing tattered, a disheveled 23-year-old man, stumbling through Kings National Park, a nearly 500,000-acre spread of rugged mountain country east of California’s San Joaquin Valley, stepped into a campground with an incredible tale. So incredible, many would ultimately doubt its veracity.
His name was David Steeves, an Air Force officer and test pilot who had vanished 54 days before, along with the experimental plane, the T-33 jet trainer aircraft. Steeves had piloted the craft from Hamilton Air Force base near San Francisco on May 9, 1954 for what was intended to be a short, routine mission. In time Steeves had been assumed dead and no one could find the plane. When Steeves reappeared, he said that the plane had exploded while in flight and that after recovering from a blackout, he had enough whits about him to eject and parachute down to earth. He then said he spent 15 days, wrapped in his parachute to buffer the cold of being in the mountains at high altitude, virtually crawling his way through no-man’s-land until he lucked out and found a ranger’s cabin. No one was there, but there were cans of food, a pistol and fishing equipment. With his newly acquired supplies, as he told it, he caught a fish and trapped a deer, and managed to keep going, almost drowning during a river crossing.
An instant sensation in the media, Steeves identity as a hero took a turn when the Air Force couldn’t find a single piece of the plane.
Cold War fears began to leak into the folds of Steeves’ story. Rather than a spectacular story of survival, some began to wonder if he had somehow piloted the plain to Mexico and handed the craft over to the Soviet Union. The counter-narrative took hold and Steeves newfound celebrity took a hit. A book deal evaporated and with it his marriage. Steeves resigned from the Air Force.
Steeves told reporters about the devastation in his life. “To lose everything I —my wife and child—and then be thought I was a liar...Well, it was rough.”
Steeves was killed while flying a private plane over Ohio in 1965.
The mystery was partly solved—and Steeves posthumously vindicated—in 1977, when Boy Scouts visiting the park found the T-33 canopy. Steeves had been telling the truth.
But as the decades have passed, the T-33 is still missing and some of the mystery remains. Where did the Lockheed plane go? If the Adventure Science group has anything to do with—a team of scientists and ultra-endurance athletes led by Canadian star of the television program Boundless - Dr. Simon Donato—we’ll know the answer in a matter of weeks.
Donato, a geologist, assembled the Adventure Science team to thwart a gaping hole in field science that he was seeing: Most scientists just didn’t have the skill or fitness to conduct an investigation in an area as inhospitable as the High Sierras.
Donato had become aware of the problem during his grad student work. “My eureka moment occurred during my PhD field work in Oman,” he says. “The scope of my project grew solely because of the fitness level of my supervisor and I. In several days, we completed a lagoon survey—with two tidal cycles per day—that would have taken less fit individuals much longer.”
This advent of science given range by ultra-athleticism became a passion for Donato. Some of the projects he’s since taken on include assessing muscle damage in a 900km relay and an archaeology project in Oman called “Beyond the Roads.”
In 2010, Donato led an Adventure Science expedition into the Sierras in 2010 in their first attempt at finding the missing jet, but came up empty handed. On June 14, Donato and a team of ultra runners, adventure racers and a triathlete will resume the search.
Donato is cautiously realistic about being able to zero-in on the T-33’s location.
“Finding the airplane will be a serious challenge,” he says. “However, I am very confident that with the team I have assembled, at the very least, we will be able to find additional clues that will help point us towards the airplane’s final resting place.”
Updates and progress reports will be uploaded to AdventureScience.ca and the blog: http://ltsteevesmissingjet.wordpress.com/.