A Private Jet Vanished in Vermont in 1971. After 53 Years, It’s Finally Reappeared.

underwater airplane wreck in the bahamas
Jet Missing in U.S. Since 1971 Found in LakeBrandi Mueller - Getty Images
  • A private plane carrying five people was lost during the winter of 1971 shortly after departing Burlington, Vermont, and at least 17 searches have yielded no information on its location.

  • The plane was discovered using a remotely operated vehicle in 200 feet of water in Vermont’s Lake Champlain, giving the families of those lost some answers.

  • It seems like understanding sonar imaging held the key to knowing where to look in a lake for a lost plane.

When ice covered over Vermont’s Lake Champlain on Jan. 27, 1971—just four days after the disappearance of a private jet flying from Burlington, Vermont—hope for an immediate discovery of the wreckage and the bodies of the five people on board also froze over.

The plane originally departed Burlington amidst darkness and snow. It carried two crew members and three employees of Cousins Properties, an Atlanta-based development company working on a project in the Burlington area. The plane was bound for Providence, Rhode Island, but shortly after takeoff, the plane disappeared, and initial searches didn’t reveal the wreckage. Then, just four days later, the lake that creates the Vermont-New York border just three miles from Burlington iced over.

The thawing of ice in spring of 1971 revealed plane debris at Shelburne Point on Lake Chaplain. An underwater search followed, but didn’t turn up additional results.

Over the next 53 years, and throughout at least 17 searches, answers eluded the family of the lost. But those answers seem to have finally come to light—thanks to sonar and a remotely operated vehicle, the plane has been found 200 feet below the water’s surface at Lake Champlain. The 10-seat Jet Commander plane has the same custom paint livery known to have covered the outside of the missing aircraft, and sits near where that plane last appeared on tracking data.

“With all those pieces of evidence,” Garry Kozak, who led the search team, told the Associated Press, “we’re 99 percent absolutely sure.”

The search had continued off and on for decades with no results, but sonar images of the lake—taken by the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum and Middlebury College—gave Kozak reason to believe there was a chance they could finally find the plane. Partnering with colleague Hans Hug of Sonar Search and Recovery in 2022, the team identified an anomaly in the sonar data and located an old military aircraft in the lake. They were on the right track. Another look at the sonar turned up a second anomaly, which led to the discovery of the private jet.

“A jet, it looks like a pile of rocks, literally,” Kozak told WCAX-TV. “So, to most people looking at sonar data, they can overlook it because they’ll go, ‘Oh, that looks like geology.”

This time, it wasn’t geology.

“Spending 53 years not knowing if the plane was in the lake or maybe on a mountainside around there somewhere was distressing,” Frank Wilder, a son of one of the plane’s passengers (also named Frank Wilder), told the AP. “And again, I’m feeling relieved that I know where the plane is now but unfortunately it’s opening other questions and we have to work on those now.”

While the National Transportation Safety Board doesn’t operate salvage missions, it does plan to investigate to verify the identity of the plane. From there, decisions must be made on if family members will attempt to recover any potential remains still in the wreckage. Either way, they do expect to conduct a memorial near the site.

“Whether there is tangible remains, and I hate to say it that way, and worth disturbing, that’s a decision that we’ll have to figure out later, and part of what we’re unpacking now,” Charles Williams, son of passenger Robert Ransom Williams III, told the AP. “It’s hard when you start to think about that.”

But at least now, there are more answers than before.

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