Examination of a “vexing, tragic and unsolved mystery”
The Douglas C-54 “Skymaster” was a large aircraft.
A four-engine cousin of CP Air’s DC-3 “weapon” that is commemorated outside the Yukon Transportation Museum, a C-54 had a wider wingspan, taller tail, a crew of seven and room for 37 passengers.
When USAF Skymaster #2469 departed Anchorage on January 26, 1950—following the northwest transit route over the Yukon, then south to Great Falls, Montana—it was carrying a full load.
Almost all of the passengers were military except for a young family – Joyce Espe was seven months pregnant and traveling with her toddler, Victor. Espe was going to see an obstetrician in Colorado.
The Northwest Staging Route was an electronic highway across the sky, mirrored on the ground by communications outposts set up every 100 miles.
The Skymaster flight crew dutifully carried out their radio checks – the first communications base inside the Yukon border was at Snag.
The crew reported light icing on the wings but gave no distress indication. Their next recording was to be in Aishihik.
But that never happened – they disappeared. A massive three-week search turned up nothing, and to this day the plane and all of its passengers and crew are still missing, presumably somewhere in the Yukon.
I first heard about the Skymaster when I was back in Whitehorse for the 2018 Available Light Film Festival with another Yukon documentary, Secrets From The Ice.
Sometimes one great story leads to another. I was visiting Yukon Archeology when I spotted some old battered airplane parts on a shelf.
Archaeologist Christian Thomas said: “We found them last summer – we thought they might have been from the Skymaster, but they weren’t.”
Master of the Sky? Which Skymaster?
The story snowballed from there and blossomed into our new film, Skymaster Down, which screened at this year’s Available Light Film Festival on February 4th.
“It’s an American plane full of Americans,” says Bob Cameron, a well-known Yukon aviation historian and pilot. “And I just wonder how could something that big not be found yet?”
Cameron was five years old when the Skymaster went missing.
He remembers his father coming over for supper, talking about the harsh winter conditions and how search planes were crashing. (Incidentally, two of those research planes are still there — a C-47 on the flank of Mount Lorne and another left stranded in the Ruby Range.)
The Yukon government has a database of over 500 known aircraft wrecks in the territory – many of them fell between 1942 and the early 1950s, during the rush to fortify Alaska against the Japanese in World War II, and then later, to reinforce the northern front lines during the Cold War.
Of all these wrecks in the database, only four are still missing. And one of them is the Skymaster.
“In the years after 1950,” Cameron says, “I must think that every square foot of the country was criss-crossed by aerial surveys, game surveys, geologists, prospectors, hikers, uh, and not to mention of furrows by planes on charters and skid trails and so on Why nothing was spotted, I don’t know.
Even more surprising to me is that the Skymaster tragedy has been largely forgotten.
Before 2018, I had never heard of it. I soon discovered that it was the same for almost everyone – except for the relatives of the people who were on that plane and a small, dedicated crew in the Yukon who tried to find the Skymaster and turn a blind eye to families.
“It got personal,” says Donna Clayson, a longtime volunteer with the Civil Aviation Search and Rescue Association in Whitehorse.
CASARA uses its summer training sessions to search for the plane and all those missing people.
“I almost feel like I know them,” Clayson says. “What if it was my parents?” What if it was someone I knew? And these people are still there after 70 years.
“These are families who miss their loved ones. And if we can find one little clue, that’s all we need. This will take us to an overview.
But the big picture is elusive. I dove into history, looking for accident reports, newspaper articles, first-person accounts – anything that might help paint a picture of what might have happened that day – there from January 1950.
“I’d rather know he died instantly than if they had survivors and they were freezing to death. I don’t think I could handle that,” says Judy Jackson, who lives in Alabama.
His father, Clarence Gibson, was the Skymaster’s radio operator. His mother was still pregnant with Jackson when Gibson disappeared.
“I just hope it was instantaneous. I just don’t understand why there were no more searches for this plane. It’s just a mystery.”
“I was 22 when I was there at Snag,” says Clare Fowler, who is now over 90 and lives in Ottawa. “I’m probably the only guy alive now who was there then.”
Fowler was a civilian radio operator at Snag. He remembers a flurry of American and Canadian military planes landing on their remote airstrip as they searched for the lost Skymaster.
“The husband of the woman (Joyce Espe) on board (the Skymaster) who was pregnant, her husband came over and thought he could help and look, to be another pair of eyes on one of the planes of But there were so many search planes.
Sgt.-Maj. Robert Espe was desperate and discouraged that his whole family had fallen with the Skymaster. Prior to departure on Jan. 26, he ensured that Joyce and Victor were seated next to Sgt. Roy Jones, Espe’s best friend.
In a newspaper interview, Espe said, “My last words to Joyce were ‘if you have to jump, give the baby to Sgt. Roy Jones’…she said she would.
“When I learned the plane was missing, I was granted emergency leave. I arrived in Whitehorse on Saturday.
“On Sunday morning, I boarded the first research plane to leave the base. We were away about nine hours.
“I went through the hysteria and thought I was silly,” he said.
“It was part of our, our life growing up, knowing that Joyce was gone,” says Joyce Espe’s niece, Jeannie Stanley.
“And we, we just hope that they, one day they find it, they find the plane. So we can all have the closure.
“You think the government would have done more,” said Stanley’s brother, Royce Stanley, “because they have military on board. But just give up? Not really the American thing, is it?
Before construction of the Alaska Highway began in 1942, Whitehorse was a small transportation hub, with paddle steamers lining the Yukon River waterfront and trains arriving from Skagway.
Then thousands of soldiers arrived in a stampede to complete the highway – and Whitehorse was turned into a sprawling army camp. When the war ended and control of the highway was transferred to Canada, the territory changed forever.
Signs of that old military “friendly occupation” are rare around Whitehorse these days.
There are still a few Quonset huts, some old construction machinery in museums and of course the airport, which was extended considerably during the war.
If the Skymaster hadn’t disappeared, its passage over the city would have been mundane, recorded as regular air traffic.
Instead, it remains one of Canada’s most vexing, tragic and yet forgotten unsolved mysteries.
And I hope Skymaster Down helps bring attention back to the story, so the mystery can finally be solved.
At the end of 2020, months after our filming was completed, photos appeared on the website of an American aircraft wreckage hunter.
Somehow he had bypassed the Yukon’s COVID checkpoints and snuck into the territory.
He said he spent three days climbing Mount Hoge, inside Kluane National Park, and claimed to have found the Skymaster.
His photos showed tattered pieces of aluminum that were clearly from an airplane. No one has been able to get up there to confirm the story and the wreck hunter is said to be “uncooperative”.
Even so, this might be the most significant development in Skymaster’s history since that tragic day in 1950.
Skymaster Down Part II?
We will have to see.
Skymaster Down will premiere at 9 p.m. ET/PT this Sunday on Documentary Channel.
It was written and directed by Andrew Gregg, who co-produced it with Deborah Parks. It is produced by Skymaster Productions in association with Documentary Channel.
© ANDREW GREGG, 2022
By ANDREW GREGG