Seven decades later, the search for two missing Navy pilots continues

The pilots are thought to have disappeared near Black Lake, northeast of North Bend.

Seventy-one years after two young Navy pilots went down near North Bend, a small group of Washingtonians is still manning the searchlights, hoping to find proof of the plane’s final resting place at the bottom of a murky Cascades lake.

On March 11, 1949, Lt. JG Benjamin Vreeland, an experienced pilot, and Ens. Gaston Mayes took off from Sand Point Naval Air Station in Seattle. They were flying a SNJ-5 Texan training plane, a small, single-engine aircraft used to train pilots.

The pair set off around 10 am. in the morning for a two-hour flight. They never returned. And despite an eight-day air and ground search by the Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard, neither the plane nor the remains of the two pilots were found.

But the tragedy was the beginning of the story for one of the pilots’ mothers, Nora Mayes. On that weekend in 1949, when the plane went missing, Mayes traveled to Washington state to search for her son.

And she returned — again and again — each summer until 1968.

Her search for Gaston Mayes was well-documented at the time by local newspapers, including the Valley Record.

One clip from Sept. 14, 1964, said Nora Mayes, of Clinton, Tenn., returned to the Sunset Motel in North Bend, which served as her headquarters every summer since 1950. It was her 16th year of searching for her son.

Evidence was found that the plane had crashed in Black Lake, a small lake north of North Bend. The lake is relatively shallow, between 25 to 35 feet, but has a muddy bottom.

This means that if the airplane did in fact crash in the lake, it likely broke apart and sunk to the bottom — possibly under 8 feet of mud, said Lee Corbin, a historian from Graham who has been a part of a resumed search for the aircraft.

“It really caught my attention,” Corbin said. “I’ve always felt bad knowing that these guys, these two Navy pilots, are sitting down there at the bottom of this lake, and nobody seems to be doing anything about it.”

Some years back, he was introduced to Shawn Murphy, a Centralia veteran with maritime recovery and aviation experience. They teamed up with Scott Williams, who helped them complete a survey of Black Lake and a report on their findings.

The report builds on findings that Nora Mayes discovered during her years of searching, pointing toward the lake as the plane’s graveyard. Between 1954 and 1961, debris such as wires thought to be from aircraft antenna associated with a SNJ-5 aircraft was found in the lake. But the Navy never followed up on the aircraft disappearance after the initial search.

Other evidence seems to point to Black Lake being the crash site, including a forest worker who noticed the lake turned red, the same color as a pilot’s emergency flotation devices. Lumberjacks in the area also reported hearing an airplane flying overhead that sounded like it was having engine problems on March 11, 1949, in the area of Black Lake.

In 2019, the Maritime Archaeological Society conducted a side-scan sonar survey of Black lake and the nearby Mud Lake, according to a report from Williams. No evidence of the aircraft or debris were found. However, in 2020, another volunteer group ran a magnetometer in the lake and got three signals, suggesting metal objects at the bottom of the lake.

But nothing seen was by divers during the 2020 expedition, which doesn’t surprise Murphy, who said the engine and other airplane pieces could be buried under as much as 8 feet of mud.

This could complicate any sort of recovery, especially in a remote lake on private land owned by Snoqualmie Timber LLC. Murphy said the Navy should get involved and finally find out whether the plane is in Black Lake — or not.

An email from George Schwarz with the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command said they had been working with the team in Washington state to figure out if the plane went down in Black Lake.

“Evidence suggests the Texan aircraft may have crashed in the lake, but NHHC and these dedicated researchers are still searching for naval and local records, which have been scattered since the late 1940s, to narrow down possibilities. NHHC has not yet determined if continued remote sensing surveys of the lake will be productive since, according to reports from previous search efforts, the aircraft remains are likely deeply buried and largely inaccessible in the lake bottom. The Navy will continue to assess the site and available records to possibly determine if Black Lake is the final resting place of the aircraft,” the email states.

In 1949, when the plane went down, the military’s philosophy on body recovery was different than it is today. Now, when a military member is killed, every effort is taken to recover their body. This “no man left behind” approach was created in Vietnam, decades after the pilots crashed.

And it came in the wake of World War II, just before the Korean War, and amid the burgeoning Cold War.

“The military just accepted you’re going to lose people,” Murphy said. “And the dime-a-dozen, so to speak — I hate to use that term, but I think there was almost a fatalistic approach. ‘Hey, you run the risk of dying. If you do, we’ll do our best, but hey, sorry.’”

Murphy said he contacted the Naval History and Heritage Command, which has shown interest in the search. The Navy would be able to either provide high-power ground-penetrating radar, or contract with companies who could.

This would give them a clearer picture of what exactly is under the lake.

And if the Navy takes on the project, Murphy thinks they could complete work by the end of October.

“There’s so many layers of command, and everything like that they have to go through,” Corbin said. “And we’re kind of hoping that somewhere, something’s going to happen in that line of things.”


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