For those with a love of history, today’s divisive political climate harkens back to the McCarthy era, with politicians of every stripe spouting heated rhetoric to the media at any opportunity.
During the 1950s, Sen. Joe McCarthy became famous — then infamous — for his virulent attacks on virtually anyone. McCarthy typically accused individuals of being communists, an allegation that carried serious negative connotation in the early days of the United States’ Cold War with the Soviet Union. As with politicians today, many of McCarthy’s accusations were created out of his active mind. The fact that McCarthy himself was a known liar, and fabricator of his own media personality, was largely ignored.
There were many innocent victims in that era. One of these was U.S. Air Force Lt. David Steeves. At 23, Steeves had achieved amazing things. He was a jet fighter pilot and instructor, flying the Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star. He and his wife, Rita, had just welcomed their daughter, Leisa, into the world.
On May 9, 1957, Steeves was flying his T-33 from San Francisco home to Craig Air Force Base near Selma, Alabama. As he reached altitude, a sudden explosion rocked the cockpit. After losing then regaining consciousness, Steeves tried to pull the diving aircraft out of its spin. Nothing he did changed the hurtling jet’s trajectory, and he quickly assumed his eject position and launched himself out of the plane.
As he finally broke through the thick cloud cover, the immense snow-covered wilderness of the Sierra was revealed below. The craggy forests of Kings Canyon were rushing toward Steeves as he looked up at his canopy and realized his chute had been damaged in the ejection.
He hit on a snowy downslope and tumbled to a stop, the chute wrapping around some brush and boulders, bringing him to a stop. Attempting to stand and gather his chute before it pulled him away, his ankles gave way. Both were badly sprained. Crawling toward the chute, Steeves dragged the lines until he had bundled it into his arms.
Taking stock, he realized that if rescuers were to come, it would be hours and he needed shelter. Steeves crawled down to a crevice and pulled the silk chute around him as a blanket.
A quick inventory was not much comfort. His Air Force jumpsuit was the light summer model, but his boots were sturdy, and he had a .32 caliber revolver, a knife, and some matches. He also had a map, ID, paperwork, and pictures of his wife and daughter.
After three days, Steeves knew that rescue was not coming and that he would need to get moving to find food. Water was not an issue as the spring thaw meant creeks and rivers were swollen and raging with snowmelt. As he dragged himself downhill, Steeves soon realized that the deep snow he fought through only led to the roaring creeks below. Even without his injuries, they were impossible to cross. Looking at his map, the lieutenant concluded he needed to go uphill to get to an area where he might run into hunters.
Days of dragging himself through bitterbrush and snow thorn, and nights of freezing in his parachute blanket awaiting the sunrise, soon took their toll. His strength and stamina waning, Steeves needed food aside from the wild strawberries, dandelions, and grass he had grubbed from the ground.
Late that third afternoon, his luck finally changed. He spied an old forest ranger cabin in a meadow below. Inside, he found canned food and made a fire. Steeves ate and slept for days, his ankles healing during that time. He rigged a trap with his revolver, shooting a mule deer, and caught fish with hooks and line from the cabin.
On day 54, Steeves began to hike out. He heard voices and approached two couples on horseback. Shocked by the unshaven skin-and-bones apparition before them, the men and women listened in awe as he told them who he was and what he had done.
Following his rescue, Steeves was hailed as a peacetime hero by all who heard his story. He was offered book deals and media appearances. He was reveling in the life of a celebrity but just as it began to wear thin for him and his young family, suspicion was cast by the media when a “source” indicated that the Air Force suspected him of stealing the aircraft and selling it to the Soviets or Mexicans.
The absurdity of this was lost on the media in the furor to find Communists everywhere. The T-33 was not top secret, it was a common training aircraft that had been in service for almost 10 years. It was sold and leased to allies, including Mexico. It also crashed fairly often.
Steeves’ neighbor, a fellow Air Force pilot, and the neighbor’s co-pilot, had been killed just two months before in a T-33 crash near Blue Canyon, west of Truckee. That crash was in February 1957; however, the aircraft and the airmen’s bodies were not found until the following October. The fact that Steeves had not suddenly gained a large sum of money or run off to an island paradise as a spy might have done was ignored. Steeves and his young family found themselves embroiled in a witch hunt and they were the hunted.
Steeves vehemently denied the suspicions and repeatedly told the same consistent story of survival. His commanding officer made statements that he did not doubt Steeves’ story. Unfortunately, the support of the Air Force investigation was slow and not nearly as exciting as the breathless suspicions of the media.
He and Rita divorced as their marriage crumbled. Seeing no way to evade the media steamroller, Steeves left the Air Force and became a commercial pilot. His days off were consumed by his obsession of searching for his T-33. Steeves borrowed, rented, and finally purchased a small plane and flew above the Sierra looking for any sign of the wreckage. In 1965, 31-year-old Steeves was killed demonstrating an experimental plane he’d been developing. His searches had been in vain, as Steeves never located his T-33.
In October 1977, Boy Scouts hiking in Dusy Basin at Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park found the numbered canopy from Steeves’ T-33, confirming his story. Sadly, Steeves didn’t live to see his name cleared. The rest of the wreckage of his aircraft has not been found; the aircraft, perhaps, having stayed airborne long enough to crash unseen into the Pacific Ocean. But the discovery of the portion of wreckage found by the Boy Scouts was enough to clear Steeves’ name posthumously.
Veteran search and rescue personnel will say it is possible to walk within 5 feet of aircraft wreckage in the Sierra Nevada and never see it. Even now, in this age of high-definition cameras and ground-penetrating radar, there are thousands of plane wrecks lost in what some term the “Nevada Triangle.” The area is roughly described as being Fresno to Las Vegas to Reno and encompasses some of the most remote and rugged terrain of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
Next time you’re hiking the Sierra off-trail, consider that over 2,000 aircraft wrecks are in these mountains, many never found. If you find one, note the tail number or serial numbers. Lt. David Steeves’ family, the memory of his service, and his epic tale of survival deserve that.
Should you encounter airplane wreckage, note the tail number or serial numbers and report them to local law enforcement as well the owner of the property (USFS or State Parks) upon which it was found. If it’s a marked military aircraft, report the find to the nearest base of that military branch using the tail number (if found) and GPS coordinates and method of location.