Day #2: The Search for Lt. Steeves Missing Jet (June 15th, 2014)

Today the Adventure Science team ground-truthed a known wreck site near Owen River Gorge, California. The plane, the Vultee BT-13 – serial number #41-21786, belonged to Cadet W.J. Kania of the United States Air Force. He was, unfortunately, found dead 200 feet from his plane, approximately a week after he went missing in 1943.

ImageThe Valley where the Vultee BT-13 was found


Adventure Science team members Jane Davis, Jordan Eady, and Josh Eady, with remnants of the plane.


Adventure Science athlete, Helene Dumais, at the Vultee BT-13 crash site.


Adventure Science athlete, Winter Vinecki, with remnants of the Vultee BT-13. 

The Adventure Science team also attempted to scout the known wreck sites from the air today with help from Corsair Aviation, but were unfortunately grounded due to extreme winds.


Instead, the team hiked out to Bishop Pass to scout weather conditions and assess snow pack for entry into the high Sierras. The team is currently scheduled to enter the Sierras on Wednesday June 18th, 2014, and are confident that they will be able to push through the lingering snow.


Follow along with the team via live tracking provided by inReach Canada, here:

Photo Credit: Liz Barney / Adventure Science


The Lockheed T-33A Shooting Star Two Seat Training Jet



Lockheed’s P-80 Shooting Star has its own special niche in USAAF/USAF history. From it evolved a lengthened-fuselage two-seat trainer version, designated originally TF-80C. The first of these flew on 22 March 1948. In addition to the fuselage ‘stretch’, a second cockpit in tandem was provided with dual controls, the transparent canopy was extended to cover both cockpits and the armament of the F-80 was deleted.

A total of 128 TF-80C were built before the designation was changed to T-33A in May 1949. Adopted as the USAF’s standard jet trainer, it remained in production for a further ten years. A total of 649 were also built for service with the US Navy and Marine Corps under the designation TV-2, later T-33B. Total production amounted to 5,691 aircraft (including those for the Navy): 1,058 for supply to friendly nations under the Military Assistance Program and the balance to the USAF. T-33A were also licence-built in Canada (656 as the Silver Star, with Rolls-Royce Nene engine) and Japan (210). Variants included small numbers modified as DT-33A drone directors and AT-33A armed close-support aircraft.


In the 1950s the cold war was escalating; the KGB had just been established and the Russians were gearing up to launch the Sputnik into orbit. Vietnam was split at the 17th parallel and McCarthy’s witch hunt had raised the ardor to a fevered pitch.

America was engaged in a race of military mite and super power status came with a focus on state of the art aircraft with superior handling and missile firing accuracy. Readiness was paramount and Lockheed’s T-33 was a front line training jet for advanced level Air Force pilots. Only a few trusted high level men where engaged in the secrecy of aircraft training, testing and development.

Steeves’ Story Confirmed

He returned to Los Angeles at one point, not as a celebrity but as a plaintiff against the Post and Henry Holt, claiming breach of contract. The suits were settled out of court.


Article: The Daily Iowan, Dec 27th, 1957

Steeves moved to Fresno, west of where he ejected, and in the following years, he flew over the Sierra again and again on his own, looking for any sign of the wreckage.

But on Oct. 16, 1965, he was killed when a private plane he was piloting crashed in Boise, Idaho.

Steeves’ story faded into obscurity until 1978 when rangers in Kings Canyon reported that Boy Scouts visiting from Los Angeles had found wreckage in the area where the pilot had ejected — the canopy of a T-33. It bore the serial number (52-92-32) of Steeves’ canopy. It was the vindication Steeves had sought for so long.


The rest of the aircraft was never found. One ranger theorized that it “could have gone out over the ocean” and crashed after Steeves bailed out.


Observer/Reporter – October 14, 1978
Click here to read full article

Hero or hoax? Public doubted Lt. Steeves’ story of survival



Photo is from the first full meal that 1st Lt. David A Steeves had back in civilization, at a ranger’s station, where he was taken on horseback by one of four campers whom he had stumbled across a day earlier.

The 23 year old was at first greeted as a hero, his struggle was seemingly impossible to persevere. The Saturday Evening Post offered Steeves $10,000 for an exclusive cover story of his ordeal.

Air Force superiors took his testimony and laid out a search for his aircraft. Months of searching and reviewing his story came up empty, not a piece of the wreckage of the top level aircraft was found. Rumors and suspicion were mounting; how did he survive without food for two weeks, let alone find the strength to continue walking and stumble onto a cabin with stores of food. Fifty-four days and he manages to climb his way to safety, with no trace of the crash sight? Lieutenant David Steeves’ heroic story seemed unlikely. The magazine pulled back on their offer claiming discrepancies in his story, their accusations were never spelled out.

A more plausible story was being piece together by the Air Force. A traitorous pilot, flies his military jet deep into Mexico, hands it over to the Russians for payment into a foreign bank account. He is then flown back over the Sierra Nevada and dropped into the mountains. Food was planted at the ranger’s cabin along with a preplanned route back to civilization. A weary pilot would then tell his well rehearsed story and no one would be the wiser.

With lack of hard evidence formal charges were never filed but rumors and suspicion would plague his military career until 1st Lieutenant David Steeves would ask his superiors for a full discharge from the Air Force. Steeves’ civilian life brought divorce and the loss of custody of his young daughter, he lost the support of most of his friends. He managed to find work as a commercial pilot and was involved in designing parachute planes. Driven by the cloud of conspiracy hanging over his head he would spend the rest of his life combing the Sierra from a rented plane hoping that the discovery of the wreckage would clear his name.

L.A. Times Article: Hero or Hoax

Steeves’ Story of Survival


Fifty-four days after his disappearance, a full bearded, battered and half starved man in an Air Force flight suit aimlessly limped into a hiker’s camp. He gave his name as Lieutenant Steeves and told his story of survival:

A violent explosion in the cockpit had left him unconscious and his jet spiraling out of control. He slowly regained consciousness and instinctively fought to control the spin. The aircraft leveled out but was filling with smoke, he was forced to eject and deploy his parachute, dropping into the most mountainous backcountry of the Sierra Nevada. Taking a hard landing, both ankles are badly sprained and he finds himself wearing only a light weight summer flight suit.

He went two weeks without food, wandering, trying to navigate his way out of the mountains. When he was about to give up, he came across a ranger’s cabin finding cans of ham and beans, fish hooks, and line. His hope for survival was renewed and he continued his tramp out of the mountains. In May the high country of the Sierra, with elevations well over 11,000 feet, is still covered with snow; rivers and streams are often a torrent and dangerous to cross.

Lt. Steeves’ Mission

David Steeves (1934 – October 16, 1965) was a U.S. Air Force lieutenant and experimental aircraft test pilot. 


The story of Lt. Steeves started on a clear and sunny day on May 9, 1957 as he soared over the High Sierras at 33,500 feet. His mission was seemingly simple: to deliver a Lockheed Martin T-33 training jet from the Hamilton Air Force Base near San Francisco, to the Craig Air Force Base near Selma, Alabama. But 
the young pilot and his top level aircraft disappeared from radar and never landed at the central valley Air Force base. A search and rescue mission was launched, but failed to find any trace of the pilot or his airplane. First Lieutenant Steeves was declared dead and a death certificate was mailed to his family.