Plane missing since 1971 found submerged in Vermont’s Lake Champlain

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

The business jet disappeared shortly after departing Burlington Airport for Providence, Rhode Island, on January 1. 27, 1971. Among those on board were two crew members and three employees of the Georgia development company Cousins ​​​​Properties, who were working on a development project in Burlington.

Initial searches for the 10-seat Jet Commander revealed no wreckage and the lake froze for four days after the plane was lost.

At least 17 more searches took place, until underwater researcher Garry Kozak and a team using a remotely operated vehicle found the wreckage of a plane with the same custom paint scheme in the lake last month near where the radio control tower had last tracked the plane before it. disappeared. Sonar images were taken of the wreckage found in 200 feet of water near Juniper Island.

“With all this evidence, we are absolutely 99% sure,” Kozak said Monday.

In this May 2024 image provided by Garry Kozak, the remains of what experts believe to be a 10-seat Jet Commander plane lie on the bottom of Lake Champlain off the coast of Juniper Island, Vermont.Garry Kozak/AP

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

Although loved ones are grateful and relieved that the plane was found, the discovery also raises other questions and old wounds.

“Having this discovered now … it’s a peaceful feeling, but at the same time it’s a very sad feeling,” Barbara Nikitas, niece of pilot George Nikita, said in an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press . “We know what happened. We saw some photos. We’re struggling, I think, with that now.

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

“Going 53 years without knowing if the plane was in the lake or maybe on a mountainside somewhere nearby was painful,” said Wilder, who lives outside Philadelphia. “And again, I feel relieved to know where the plane is now, but unfortunately it opens up other questions and we have to work on them 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 wreck.

At least 17 other searches took place, including in 2014, according to Kozak. At the time, authorities’ curiosity was sparked by the disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines plane that year, with the hope that new technology would make it possible to find the wreckage, but this was not to be. case.

Barbara Nikitas, who lives in Southern California, and her cousin Kristina Nikita Coffey, who lives in Tennessee and is George Nikita’s daughter, recently led the search and contacted relatives of other victims.

What was fascinating about reconnecting with the group was that “everyone had pieces of the pie and the puzzle that when we started sharing information and documents, we got a much better understanding and a better perspective of the information, of how we were all affected by “this,” said Charles Williams, whose father, Cousins ​​Properties employee Robert Ransom Williams III, was on the plane .

He called Kozak a hero for his dedication to finding the plane.

After the 2014 search failed, Kozak became intrigued and conducted a sonar survey of the lake carried out by the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum and Middlebury College. He found four anomalies at the bottom of the lake. Then, in 2022, a colleague, Hans Hug of Sonar Search and Recovery in Exeter, New Hampshire, and his friend who owns an ROV, said they wanted to search for the plane, Kozak said.

The team found a plane, but it turned out to be a military plane. Last winter, Kozak 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 to see if it is the plane, Williams said. The NTSB does not conduct rescue operations, which would be costly, Williams said.

“Whether there are tangible remains, and I hate to say it that way, that are worth disturbing, that’s a decision we’ll have to determine later and that’s part of what we’re unpacking now,” did he declare. “It’s hard when you start thinking about it.”

Relatives of the victims plan to hold a memorial service now that they know where the plane is.

Leave a Comment