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Long-lost private plane with 5 men aboard possibly found by divers after 53 years

Kozak expressed a high level of certainty, stating, “With all those pieces of evidence, we're 99% absolutely sure”

After fifty-three years, a Private Plane carrying five men vanished on a snowy night in Vermont and has potentially been discovered in Lake Champlain, according to experts. The jet disappeared right after taking off from Burlington airport en route to Providence, Rhode Island, on January 27, 1971. Onboard were two crew members and three employees from Cousin’s Properties, an Atlanta-based development firm, who were engaged in a project in Burlington.

Despite initial searches yielding no wreckage of the 10-seat Jet Commander and the lake freezing over just four days after the plane went missing, subsequent efforts continued. A total of at least 17 searches took place over the years. Recently, underwater searcher Garry Kozak and his team, utilizing a remotely operated vehicle, discovered wreckage resembling a jet with the same unique paint scheme. This discovery was made on Lake Champlain, close to where the plane was last tracked by the radio control tower before its disappearance. The wreckage was located approximately 200 feet (60 meters) deep near Juniper Island, and sonar images were captured of the site.

Kozak expressed a high level of certainty, stating, “With all those pieces of evidence, we’re 99% absolutely sure.” According to him, finding the wreckage brings “some closure and answers a lot of the questions they had, and to the families of the victims, it provides answers to many of their lingering questions.

Emotional Impact on Families of Private Plane Crash Victims

Although the relatives are thankful and relieved about the discovery of the plane, it also brings up new questions and reopens old wounds. Barbara Nikita, niece of pilot George Nikita, opened up in an interview and said, “To have this found now… it’s a peaceful feeling, but at the same time it’s a very sad feeling. We know what happened. We’ve seen a couple of photos. We’re struggling, I think, with that now.”

Frank Wilder’s father, who shares the same name, was one of the passengers on the plane. Wilder, who now lives in Philadelphia, said, “Spending 53 years not knowing if the plane was in the lake or maybe on a mountainside somewhere was distressing, 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.”

After the ice melted in the spring of 1971, debris from the plane was discovered on Shelburne Point, as per Kozak. However, an underwater search conducted in May of 1971 failed to locate the wreckage. Subsequently, there were at least 17 additional searches, with one occurring in 2014. Kozak mentioned that during this search, authorities were motivated by the curiosity sparked by the Malaysia Airlines plane disappearance in that same year. Despite hoping that new technology would aid in finding the wreck, it was not successful.

Barbara Nikita, residing in southern California, along with her cousin Kristina Nikita Coffey from Tennessee, took the lead in the recent search endeavors. They also reached out to other relatives of the victims to coordinate efforts.

Charles Williams’ father, Robert Ransom Williams III, was an employee of Cousin’s Properties and was aboard the plane. He said, “Everybody had pieces of the pie and the puzzle that when we started sharing information and sharing documents, what we got was a much greater understanding and perspective of the information, how we were all impacted by this.” He praised Kozar as a hero due to his unwavering commitment to locating the plane. Following the unsuccessful 2014 search, Kozar’s interest was piqued, leading him to examine a sonar survey of the lake conducted by the Champlain Maritime Museum and Middlebury College. 

Within this survey, he identified four anomalies on the lake bed. In 2022, Hans Hug from Sonar Search and Recovery in Exeter, New Hampshire, along with a friend equipped with an ROV, expressed interest in searching for the plane, according to Kozar. Although they initially discovered a military aircraft, Kozar persisted. Last winter, upon revisiting the sonar survey, he identified another anomaly, which the team confirmed last month as likely being the wreckage of the plane. 

Williams mentioned that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is currently conducting an investigation to confirm if the wreckage indeed belongs to the plane. He explained that the NTSB does not handle salvage operations due to their high cost. He stated 

Private Plane
Image Source: NTSB

“Whether there are 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,” further adding, “It’s hard when you start to think about that.” Now that they have located the plane, the families of the victims intend to organize a memorial service.

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