The Douglas C-54 “Skymaster” was a big airplane.
The four-engine cousin of the CP Air DC-3 “wind vane” that is memorialized outside the Yukon Transportation Museum, a C-54 had a wider wingspan, a taller tail, a crew of seven and room for 37 passengers.
When USAF Skymaster #2469 left Anchorage on Jan. 26, 1950 – following the Northwest Staging Route over the Yukon and then south, toward Great Falls, Montana – it was carrying a full load.
Almost every passenger was a military man, except for a young family – Joyce Espe was seven months pregnant and travelling with her toddler, Victor. Espe was going to see an obstetrician in Colorado.
The Northwest Staging Route was an electronic highway through the sky, mirrored on the ground by communications outposts set up every 100 miles.
The Skymaster’s flight crew dutifully did their radio check-ins – the first communications base inside the Yukon border was at Snag.
The aircrew reported some minor icing on the wings but gave no indication of distress. Their next check-in was supposed to be at Aishihik.
But that never happened – they disappeared. A massive three-week search turned up nothing, and to this day the airplane and all 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 battered old aircraft parts on a shelf.
Archeologist Christian Thomas said, “We found those last summer – we thought they might’ve been from the Skymaster, but they weren’t.”
Skymaster? What Skymaster?
The story snowballed from there and turned into our new film, Skymaster Down, screening at this year’s edition of the Available Light Film Festival on Feb. 4.
“It’s an American aircraft full of American people,” says Bob Cameron, the 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 in for supper, talking about how difficult the winter conditions were, and how search planes were crashing. (Incidentally, two of those search planes are still out there – a C-47 on the flank of Mt. Lorne and another left derelict high in the Ruby Range.)
The Yukon government has a database of more than 500 known aircraft wrecks in the territory – many of them went down between 1942 and the early ’50s, during the rush to fortify Alaska against the Japanese during the Second World War, and then later, to bolster the northern front lines during the Cold War.
Of all those wrecks in the data base, only four are still unaccounted for. And one of those is the Skymaster.
“In the years since 1950,” says Cameron, “I have to that think every square foot of the country has been crisscrossed by aerial surveys, game surveys, geologists, prospectors, hikers, um, and not to mention crisscross by airplanes on charters and skid routes and so on. Why nothing has been spotted, I don’t know.”
Even more surprising for me was that the Skymaster tragedy has been largely forgotten.
Before 2018, I had never heard of it. I soon found out that it was the same for most everybody else – except the relatives of the people who were on that plane and a small but dedicated crew in the Yukon who have been trying to find the Skymaster and give closure to the families.
“It has become personal,” says Donna Clayson, a longtime volunteer with the Civil Aviation Search and Rescue Association in Whitehorse.
CASARA has been using its summer training sessions to search for the plane and all those missing people.
“I almost feel like I knew them,” Clayson says. “What if that was my parents? What if that was somebody I knew? And these people are still out there after 70 years.
“These are families that are missing their loved ones. And if we can find one small clue, that’s all we need. It’ll lead us to the big picture.”
But the big picture is elusive. I dove into the story, searching for accident reports, newspaper stories, first-person accounts – anything that could help paint a picture of what might’ve happened on that day in January 1950.
“I would rather know that he died instantly than if they did have some survivors and they froze to death. I don’t think I could stand that,” says Judy
Jackson, who lives in Alabama.
Her father, Clarence Gibson, was the radio operator on the Skymaster. Her mother was still pregnant with Jackson when Gibson went missing.
“I just hope it was instant. I just don’t understand why there’s not been anymore searches done for that airplane. It’s just a mystery.”
“I was 22 when I was there, in Snag,” says Clare Fowler, who is now in his 90s and lives in Ottawa. “I’m probably the only guy alive now that was there at the time.”
Fowler was a civilian radio operator at Snag. He recalls a flurry of U.S. and Canadian military aircraft landing at their remote airstrip while searching for the lost Skymaster.
“The husband of the wife (Joyce Espe) on board (the Skymaster) that was pregnant, her husband came up and thought he could help out and search, to be another pair of eyes on one of the search planes. But there were so many search planes.”
Sgt.-Maj. Robert Espe was desperate and despondent that his entire family went down with the Skymaster. Before departure on Jan. 26, he made sure Joyce and Victor were sitting 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 heard the plane was missing, I got emergency leave. I arrived in Whitehorse Saturday.
“On Sunday morning, I boarded the first search plane to leave the base. We were out for about nine hours.
“I’ve gone through the hysterics and cried myself silly,” he said.
“That was part of our, our life growing up, knowing about Joyce going missing,” says Joyce Espe’s niece, Jeannie Stanley.
“And we, we just hope that they, one day they will find her, they will find the plane. So we can all have closure.”
“You think that the government would have done more,” says Stanley’s brother, Royce Stanley, “because they have service people on board. But to
just give up? It’s not really the American thing, is it?”
Before the construction of the Alaska Highway started in 1942, Whitehorse was a small transportation hub, with sternwheelers lined up along the Yukon River waterfront and trains pulling in from Skagway.
Then thousands of soldiers arrived in a scramble to complete the highway – and Whitehorse was transformed into a sprawling military camp. By the time the war was over, and control of the highway was transferred to Canada, the territory was forever changed.
The signs of that old military “friendly occupation” are scant around Whitehorse these days.
There are still a few Quonset huts, some old construction machinery at the museums and of course the airport, which was vastly expanded during the war.
If the Skymaster had not gone missing, its passage over the city would have been unremarkable, recorded as regular air traffic.
Instead, it remains one of Canada’s most vexing, tragic yet forgotten unsolved mysteries.
And I’m hoping Skymaster Down will help bring attention back to the story, so that mystery can finally be solved.
In late 2020, months after we had completed our filming, some photos showed up on an American aircraft wreck hunter’s website.
Somehow, he had gotten around the Yukon’s COVID checkpoints and snuck into the territory.
He said he spent three days hiking up Mt. Hoge, inside Kluane National Park, and claimed that he had found the Skymaster.
His photos showed tattered aluminum bits that clearly came from an aircraft. No one has been able to get up there to confirm the story and the wreck hunter is reportedly “uncooperative.”
Even so, this might be the most important development in the Skymaster story since that tragic day in 1950.
Skymaster Down Part II?
We’ll 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 made by Skymaster Productions in association with
©ANDREW GREGG, 2022
By ANDREW GREGG