Northwest Flight 4422—An Update

Air Line Pilot, June/July 2001, p. 16
By Chris Dodd, Staff Writer

A pair of ALPA pilots who in 1997 found the wreckage of a Northwest Airlines DC-4 that had crashed on an Alaskan mountainside nearly 50 years earlier may turn to DNA testing to try to identify the few human remains found at the crash site.

The search by First Officers Marc Millican (Northwest) and Kevin McGregor (Delta) to locate the wreckage of Northwest Flight 4422 was chronicled in October 1999 (see "Finding Northwest Flight 4422"). The 1948 charter flight crashed shortly after takeoff from Anchorage on a trip from China to New York, killing all 24 passengers and six crew members on board.

At first independently, and then working together, the two airmen began their quest to locate the downed airplane in earnest in 1994. On their own time and with no outside financial support, the pair made six expeditions to try to locate the wreckage, flying a Super Cub to the Mt. Sanford area in eastern Alaska and hiking to the center of the glacier that had prevented other search crews from locating the airplane.

Over time, the pair used items from the crash site to positively identify the airplane as being that of Flight 4422. Now the pilots have turned their attention to try to identify the few human remains found at the site in order to bring closure to the victims’ families, F/O McGregor says.

The pilots enlisted the aid of the Alaska State Troopers, the Alaska Department of Public Safety’s fingerprint office, and the Maritime Personnel Center in Baltimore, Md., to determine if a human hand found at the site belonged to one of the passengers. Fingerprint records for 22 of 24 merchant seamen who were passengers on board the plane were reviewed, but yielded no positive identification, F/O McGregor says.

An Alaska State Trooper conducting an unrelated missing persons search in the crash area last fall located a lower denture and also part of an airline seat that could have been either a passenger seat or the aft jumpseat. The troopers contacted Northwest Airlines to determine if the company could provide fingerprint records that might help in the identification process, but came up empty.

The state of Alaska recently notified the two pilots that it would not fund, but will help with, DNA testing of the human tissue found at the site, to compare it with the DNA of living relatives of the flight crew members. So far, three of the families have expressed willingness to cooperate with the testing, F/O McGregor says.

F/O McGregor notes that, since the Air Line Pilot story, the two pilots have received considerable feedback from fellow pilots, speculating on the cause of the crash. The Civil Aeronautics Board report at the time listed the probable cause as "the pilots’ failure to see Mt. Sanford" because of cloud cover or being blinded by the aurora borealis.

The research of F/Os McGregor and Millican determined that the latter could have been a factor—the northern lights were reported to be extremely bright on that date. But the pair also suspect the Flight 4422 crew, who were off course, may have mistaken Mt. Drum (at the western end of the Wrangell range) for Mt. Sanford.

They may also, the pair speculate, have been thrown off by faulty altimeter settings in the mountain range’s sub-zero temperatures.

"They normally flew the correct route at 9,000 feet MSL, but the airplane actually hit the mountain at 11,000 feet MSL," F/O McGregor points out. The cold-weather altimeter error at 13,000 feet and –35 degrees Fahrenheit could have been as much as 1,500 feet, he adds. Although cold weather altimeter error was a known phenomenon in 1948, several years passed before pilots completely understood it and routinely made adjustments for flying in these extreme temperatures. Not all of the pilots in the 1940s had the benefit of that knowledge.

In the meantime, the men are working to honor the memories of the passengers and crew who died in the crash, which, the pilots point out, has been a mystery at Northwest for five decades.

The pilots plan to turn over a mountain of records from all over the country that they’ve amassed in their quest to identify the airplane, including correspondence from Pratt and Whitney verifying that the model number on the engine of the downed airplane matched the engine number of the DC-4 that took off as Flight 4422.

The plan is that the records, along with artifacts turned over by the National Park Service, should become part of a permanent exhibit at the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum in Anchorage. The two pilots are also collaborating with London Times journalist Barry Wigmore on a book about their search and hope to use the book proceeds to fund DNA testing and a monument honoring the crash victims to be placed in the "memory garden" on the museum grounds.

In February, a Seattle television station’s "Evening Magazine" program aired a 10-minute segment based on Flight 4422’s purser, Robert Haslett, who was from the Seattle area.

The network television program "Dateline" has also taped a segment on the pilots’ search for Flight 4422, with an air date yet to be determined.