On May 9, 1957 Lieutenant David Steeves of the United States Air Force carefully placed a duffle bag into the vacant rear seat of his airplane. Military T-33 training aircraft weren’t designed to carry luggage. Standing on a removable entry ladder, the polished aluminum fuselage reflected blinding rays of sun into his eyes. Thankfully he wore a pair of aviator sunglasses.
Oil stained black asphalt quickly picked up California heat, transferring invisible waves of it to his lightweight flight coveralls. The young lieutenant wiped small beads of perspiration from his forehead. Lt. Steeves’ destination that day was Craig A.F.B. in Selma, Alabama. He’d recently been transferred there.
Firing up the Lockheed T-33’s powerful jet engine and going through a series of preflight procedures, Steeves slowly but methodically applied throttle before quickly leaving runway behind. He hated saying goodbye to San Francisco, yet his beautiful wife Rita and daughter Leisa eagerly awaited him in Selma; 2300 miles away.
Climbing to 38,000 feet Steeves leveled off then pointed the nose of his bird southeast towards Arizona. Luke A.F.B. in Phoenix was one of several planned refueling stops. Unfortunately he never made it. The last communication with Lt. Steeves was with a Fresno, California air traffic controller. That was 12:20 p.m.
When Steeves didn’t arrive in Arizona rescue operations began. Searchers initially began looking in a straight line from Oakland to Phoenix. Bulletins were issued via radio including newspaper.
Wreckage spotted in mountains near Topock, Arizona was thought to be his plane. Further investigation showed it to be the crash site of a WWII B-25 bomber.
After several weeks of looking high and low, military investigators believed Lt. Steeves might have gone down in the rugged Sierra Mountains. Since there’d been recent snowfall in the higher elevations, search organizers thought snow and ice could’ve covered all traces of a possible crash.
Near the 2 month mark after Steeves’ disappearance a preliminary death certificate was issued. Copies were sent to his wife including parents who lived in Connecticut. After many search hours the Air Force declared Lt. David Reeves dead.
Thirteen days later the family was in for a shock of their lives. A bearded and gaunt Lt. Steeves was found by 2 horseback campers in the depths of Kings Canyon National Park. Fifty four days had passed since his disappearance. He’d lost 80 pounds. The story Steeves told was amazing. He believed his survival lay entirely in his faith in God, physical conditioning, and survival training.
“I was 3 years old at that time. Dad had just moved our family to Jones Trailer Park in Selma from George A.F.B. in California. My father, much like Lt. Steeves, had a new duty station at Craig. I was too young to recall Steeves’ dilemma, but my father oftentimes mentioned it in conversations with his military friends. Much of the following story comes from archived newspaper accounts.”
The trip began with no problems. Lt. Steeves engaged his autopilot and tried to relax while enjoying the scenery. Somewhere early in the flight an explosion rocked his aircraft. Lt. Steeves blacked out for a short time. When he came to he saw the plane was out of control. He immediately pushed an ejection button. The Plexiglas canopy blew away at the same time his ejection seat rocketed from the cockpit.
Floating down by nylon parachute, the distraught pilot saw nothing but rock and snow covered ground below. Landing fast and hard on frozen ground he sustained severe damage to both ankles. Unable to walk, Steeves sat for several minutes taking in the surroundings. Eventually he started crawling along the ground in search of safe haven.
During frigid nights Lt. Steeves used his thin parachute to stay warm. A freezing snow storm came through on one occasion. He sought refuge in a snow cave. The going was more than tough. After 15 days of torturous travel consisting of slipping and sliding across jagged rock, he happened upon an old cabin. He’d just painfully traveled 20 miles in terrain that experienced mountaineers avoided.
Having nothing to eat for 15 days made him extremely weak. Steeves was able to find water in puddles of melting snow. That prevented his body from incurring deadly dehydration. It took all the strength he could muster to break into the small building.
Inside the dwelling a box with canned hash, beans, tomatoes, and some sugar sat on a shelf. On the floor lay a rusty fish hook with a short piece of nylon line still attached. The first can of food helped him to somewhat regain lost strength. Using good judgment he decided to ration what was left.
Thankfully in his coveralls pocket were 2 books of partially used matches. Discovering some left behind packing materials he made a bed out of it. The exhausted pilot slept for almost 2 days straight. Upon waking he knew he had to find more food. Lt. Steeves was able to use the salvaged fish hook to catch trout. Grubs were used for bait. A small deer was shot with his service revolver. Lt. Steeves said mountain lions took most of the venison before he could harvest it. A harmless garter snake slithered by and he grabbed it without hesitation.
Topographic maps in the shed showed he was almost dead center in the Sierra’s. It was a place called Simpson Meadow. To get out was going to be a chore, especially for someone having bum ankles. Several days passed before the lieutenant attempted a hike to freedom. Cold rapid waters of the Kings River prevented such. He lost several articles of clothing during the attempt and almost drowned.
Taking a needed break he waited a few days before trying again, this time choosing a different route. As he stumbled along a deer trail, local guide Albert Ade and his client Dr. Howard Charles came into view. They were in the area looking for a place to camp. Lt. Steeves was elated in seeing them. He told the men,
“Its good finally having someone to talk to!”
Dr. Howard stayed behind allowing Ade and the downed pilot to ride packhorses to the nearest ranger station. Word quickly spread on Steeves’ rescue. The lieutenant became an instant celebrity. He appeared on the Art Linkletter and Arthur Godfrey shows, including doing several television and radio interviews.
Photos of him reunited with wife and daughter were splashed across the front page of newspapers throughout the country. Along with all the hoopla, doubt and innuendos began to follow. No wreckage from the plane had been found. Because of a couple of inconsistencies in his story, some writers began calling it a hoax. The hoax word picked up speed.
Some conspiracy types believed he’d sold the low tech jet to the Russians. Others claimed it went to Mexico; shipped there part by part. It was even mentioned that the lieutenant had been planted in the wilds after disposing of his plane. Conspiracy theories ran rampant.
Besides having demoralizing things whispered behind his back, tension in the lieutenant’s marriage began to mount. The Saturday Evening Post backed out of their agreement to do a story on him because of unstated reasons. After a lengthy investigation where he was checked for physical and mental aptitude, Lt. Steeves was cleared for duty.
He returned to Craig in September as a hero of sorts yet with some co-workers still having doubts. In the accident report there were 3 possible reasons for what happened. One of them referred to the accident as a possible ‘hoax’. The hurtful word had reared its ugly head once again.
Perhaps his biggest backer during these trying times was Craig A.F.B. Commander Colonel Leo F. Dusard. Colonel Dusard said he had no reason not to believe Lt. Steeve’s story. He had full faith in his ability to perform. Lt. Steeves’ tenure at Craig was brief though. In spite of Col. Dusard’s support, Steeves asked to be released from active duty and was granted such.
After him and Rita split, David Reeves remarried and moved to Fresno, California. He started a small aviation charter company there, working on plans for a plane capable of landing during an emergency via parachute. David Steeves often flew over the area where he bailed out. It was only 60 miles from his home in Fresno.
He valiantly searched for the missing T-33 in an attempt to clear his name. He endured long hikes throughout the Sierra’s doing the same. The hoax monkey was firmly planted on his back and he couldn’t seem to shake it.
In 1977 a group of Boy Scouts hiking at the 12,000 foot area of Kings Camp National Park came across the Plexiglas canopy of an airplane. Writing down the serial number (52-9232A) which was etched on the aluminum canopy frame, they gave it to a park ranger. It took almost a year before the Air Force confirmed the canopy was from Lt. Steeves’ jet. What he’d been telling people all those years was proven. He was finally exonerated of any hoax or wrongdoing.
Unfortunately Lt. David Steeves was not around to hear the good news. Twelve years earlier on October 16, 1965, while testing a small cargo airplane in Idaho, the plane crashed while landing. Steeves along with another man were killed.
Note: At this time no additional wreckage of Lt. Steeves’ plane has ever been found. That makes a total of 3 military aircraft still unaccounted for in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. During the past 50 years, over 2,000 aircraft have crashed there. The area is known as the ‘Bermuda Triangle’ of the west.