Six decades after crash, plane found at bottom of lake

a sketch of the U.S.A.F C-45 aircraft as it appears today on the bottom of Lake Ontario. By Roland Stevens

a sketch of the U.S.A.F C-45 aircraft as it appears today on the bottom of Lake Ontario. By Roland Stevens

Information provided by:
Justin Murphy  | Education reporter
Democrat and Chronicle Media Group

The last thing Lt. Col. Charles Callahan did before leaping from his plunging U.S. Air Force C-45 the evening of Sept. 11, 1952, was to set an autopilot course he hoped would guide the empty airplane to a crash landing in a remote spot where no one would be hurt.

As plane crashes go, it was a wild success. The C-45 traveled 65 miles with no one aboard and crashed in Lake Ontario near Oswego, where it was recently discovered underwater after lying undisturbed and undetected for 62 years.

a sketch of the U.S.A.F C-45 aircraft as it appears today on the bottom of Lake Ontario. By Roland Stevens
a sketch of the U.S.A.F C-45 aircraft as it appears today on the bottom of Lake Ontario. By Roland Stevens

The discovery was made by the shipwreck exploration team of Jim Kennard of Perinton and Roger Pawlowski of Gates, who have used sophisticated sonar equipment to find a variety of sunken vessels in the Great Lakes. They were looking for historic sunken ships when they found the airplane, much farther from shore than had been originally reported when it first crashed, according to a news release announcing the discovery.

The plane and its five-person crew was on a routine flight from Bedford, Mass., to Griffis Air Force Base near Rome when it faltered and crashed. All five people parachuted to safety; the pilotless plane buzzed over Oswego before crashing into the lake.

Pawlowski grew up in Tonawanda, Erie County, and remembered riding his bicycle to the Niagara Falls airport to watch the planes take off. One day, a pilot saw him and gave him a ride in the co-pilot’s seat of a B-18, the commercial version of the C-45.

It was his first time in an airplane; he later went on to a 27-year career in the Air Force.

“It was just a guy giving a kid a ride,” he said. “That went a long way toward boosting my interest in airplanes.”

The 34-foot-long airplane is still mostly intact on the bottom of the lake, according to sonar images. Wrecks like that one are the property of New York state.

Read the official press release below:

U.S.A.F. aircraft abandoned in flight discovered in Lake Ontario

OSWEGO, NY – The wreck of a U.S. Air Force C-45 aircraft abandoned during flight by its crew in 1952 has been located in deep water off Oswego. Crippled by the failure of one of its two engines the plane continued on a 65-mile pilotless flight until it crashed into Lake Ontario.  Shipwreck explorers Jim Kennard, Roger Pawlowski and Roland Stevens located the aircraft while surveying a section of Lake Ontario for historic ships.

Engine failure and abandonment

On September 11, 1952, the C-45 was on a routine flight from Bedford, Mass., to Griffis Air Force Base near Rome. The left engine began failing about 40 miles southeast of Utica.  The aircraft started to lose altitude about eight miles from Rome. Believing the plane would crash after one engine was disabled, the pilot, Lt. Col. Callahan, ordered his crew and passengers to parachute.  Jumping at an altitude of 2,500 feet the three Air Force Officers and two civilians landed safely. It was the first time any of them parachuted from an airplane.

Pilotless flight of the C-45

Prior to leaving the plane, Callahan set the automatic pilot on a heading he believed would take it clear of any inhabited area. The aircraft, which had been headed towards the earth was now lighter by nearly 1,000 pounds and gained altitude. The increased height changed the course of the C-45 to a northwest heading for the next hour and 10 minutes until its fuel ran out.

At 11 p.m. the aircraft was reported flying very low over Oswego. The owner and an employee of Rudy’s lakeside drive-in, west of the city, saw a plane circling out over the lake just before it plunged into the water. They both reported that, “a powerful light, like that of a searchlight, appeared for several seconds after the crash.”

Initial search for aircraft wreckage unsuccessful

The search for the missing plane began immediately by three Coast Guard cutters. In addition, C-45 trainers, C-47 transports, and B-25 bombers combed the crash area for two days. When there was no wreckage to be found the search was called off.

Crew of U.S.A.F C-45

Lt. Col.  Charles A. Callahan 32 – Pilot (Monticello, Miss)
Lt. Sam Sharff, 31 (New York City)
Lt. Col. G. S. Lambert (Newport News, Va)
William P. Bethke – civilian technician (near Rome, NY)
Joseph M. Eannario – civilian observer (Rome, NY)

Search and Discovery
According to Jim Kennard:

During the past three years, our shipwreck exploration team has focused its search efforts on locating historic shipwrecks in Lake Ontario off Oswego, Jim Kennard said.  Last season we reported several significant discoveries that included the oldest confirmed schooner Atlas, lost in 1839, the schooner Ocean Wave, lost in 1890, and the Roberval, one of only two steel steamers lost in Lake Ontario.

In addition to shipwrecks there are several aircraft that have been on our watch list including a B-24 lost in the lake in 1944, a C-47 lost near Sandy Pond in 1944, and the C-45 near Oswego.   We were quite surprised when the image of an aircraft appeared on our sonar display as it was well beyond the mile offshore as reported by a few eye witnesses.

Wreck of the C-45

We obtained detailed sonar images of the wreck of the C-45 by utilizing high resolution DeepVision side scan sonar. These images provide an almost aerial photographic image of the wreck and allow us to understand how the wreckage lies on the bottom of the lake. The sonar search was followed up by deploying a VideoRay Pro IV remote operated vehicle to collect video of the wreck site. We were amazed to see that the C-45 is almost totally intact. The fiberglass nose cone is missing as are the vertical stabilizers. One of the blades of the left propeller broke off and lies nearby on the bottom. Part of the windshield was broken and the left side of the body behind the wing has been torn away.  Otherwise it is all there. This probably explains why no debris could be found floating on the surface of the lake during the searches conducted by the US Coast Guard and US Air Force.

For our team member and retired Air Force Reserve pilot, Lt. Col. Pawlowski, it was a special discovery. As a young boy, age 9, his first ride was in a B-18 aircraft, the commercial version of the C-45.

U.S. Air Force C-45 specifications

Wingspan:  47 ft.  8 in.
Length:  34 ft. 3 in.
Height:  9 ft. 8 in.
Manufacturer:  Beach Aircraft Corporation
Engines:  Pratt & Whitney R986 AN 1 Wasp Junior 9-cylinder radial air cooled – 450 HP
Speed (maximum):  215 mph
Ceiling Height (maximum):  20,000 ft.
Loaded weight: 8,727 lbs.
Range:  700 miles
Manned by two men and carried 6 to 8 passengers with no armament.

Historic Shipwrecks in New York State waters

Historic shipwrecks abandoned and embedded in New York State underwater lands belong to the people of the State of New York and are protected by state and federal law from unauthorized disturbance.

Historic Shipwrecks of Lake Ontario Project

The survey of historic shipwrecks in Lake Ontario is funded by a grant from The National Museum of the Great Lakes/Great Lakes Historical Society of Toledo, Ohio.

Shipwreck Discovery Team

Jim Kennard has been diving and exploring the lakes in the northeast since 1970. He has found more than 200 shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, Lake Champlain, NY Finger Lakes and in the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers over the past 35 years. In 1983 he discovered a unique horse powered ferryboat in Lake Champlain.  National Geographic featured the ferryboat in their October 1989 issue.  In May 2008, Kennard and Dan Scoville discovered the 233-year-old British warship HMS Ontario, the oldest shipwreck ever found in the Great Lakes, and in September 2008 a rare 200 year old “dagger-board” schooner. Kennard is a Fellow member of The Explorers Club.

Roger Pawlowski has been diving on shipwrecks in the northeast and Florida for the past 13 years.  He is a retired Air Force Reserve pilot and flew missions in Desert Storm.  In 1980 while flying a practice mission over Lake Ontario he witnessed a small aircraft plunge into the lake.  His details of the incident and location helped Kennard locate the aircraft which was several miles from shore and in more than 100 feet underwater.  Pawlowski is an electrical engineer and runs his own engineering consulting business.

Roland ‘Chip’ Stevens is a retired architect and working artist whose watercolors, many of which have been accepted into national exhibitions, are well known in the Rochester area.  A sailor for more than 60 years, Stevens has a love of the sea as reflected in his seascapes. A number of his paintings of shipwrecks discovered by the team have appeared in news stories and publications.  Based on the ROV video recording and side scan sonar imaging, Stevens created a sketch of the U.S.A.F C-45 aircraft as it appears today on the bottom of Lake Ontario.