On November 3rd, 1965, Flight TC-48 was traveling from Argentina to the United States. After a stop in Panama the plane was in route to its next checkpoint in El Salvador. However, the plane never made it further than Costa Rica’s Talamanca Mountains. The 68 Argentine Air Force cadets and crew on board disappeared without a trace.
It was like a scene from a movie. Radio communication from the pilots demonstrated frustration and fear. The plane was slowly losing engine function. The pilot’s voices faded into radio static. A moment later, it disappeared.
The story is also somewhat cloaked in conspiracy. You can decide for yourself what to believe.
TC-48’s Initial SOS Radio Signal
At around 6:27 AM the pilots marked their location at a checkpoint near the island of Veragua. Only 9 minutes later, at 6:36 AM, the pilots radioed an SOS emergency signal to nearby air traffic control towers.
An air traffic controller in Tegucigalpa, Honduras responded to the signal. The doomed pilots explained their emergency situation. One of the plane’s four engines had stopped running and a second engine was on fire. After stopping the previous night at a Panama airport, the plane was already an hour into its flight to El Salvador. Its altitude was approximately 6,500 feet (2,000 mts), and flying northwest along the coast.
The pilot requested permission to make an emergency landing at Costa Rica’s Limón Airport on the Caribbean coast. The last words heard from the pilot was:
“Where’s the sea? Where the hell are we?”
The plane was seen for the last time at 6:44 am by a Curtiss C-46, a different plane that was en route to Miami, Florida. Álvaro Protti, the pilot of the Curtiss C-46 had a conversation with the TC-48 pilots (interview below). He confirmed that the pilots had dropped down to 4,000 feet due to the engine problems, a dangerously low altitude considering the mountains in the region.
The last communication occurs at 07:05 when the TC-48 reported that it was flying over Bocas del Toro, Panama.
The Interview with Álvaro Protti (Translated to English):
Interviewer : -Do you remember, what time did the call took place?
Pilot of the Curtiss : -I couldn’t say it exactly, but it was early in the morning.
Interviewer : -Did they tell you if they had a fire inside the cabin?
Pilot of the Curtiss : -No, not inside the cabin, no. There was fire in one engine and another was stopped. The drawbacks were on the right wing, that is, engines three and four.
Interviewer : -What did the pilots ask you?
Pilot of the Curtiss : -To make contact with the San José airport, their intention was to land on that runway.
Interviewer : -Did you make contact?
Pilot of the Curtiss : -Yes, but I advised them to land on the runway of Puerto Limón. They were flying at 7000 feet and with the problems they had and the load they were carrying they had to drop to 4000. At that point they would never have been able to land in San José because the mountains that surround the city are very high.
Interviewer : -Did they change course?
Pilot of the Curtiss : -They never told me. The person in dialogue with me said that he would communicate my suggestion to the ship’s commander, who would make the decision.
Interviewer : -Did you report what position you were in?
Pilot of the Curtiss : -Yes, about 45 min from the Limón track, on the island of Veragua.
Interviewer : -Did they tell you if you were in imminent danger of falling?
Pilot of the Curtiss : -No, quite the opposite. They said they were fighting fire in the engine and that they had control over the machine. The radio operator even said that the commander was evaluating continuing the flight to Managua.
Interviewer : -Do you think the plane fell into the sea?
Pilot of the Curtiss : -There are two possibilities; if they turned to the right, they fell into the water on the wing that had no propulsion; if they followed the route that led to Limón, they fell to the ground.
The plane was noted last noted to be between Bocas Del Toro, Panama and the Port of Limon in Costa Rica, a rather sizable stretch of land. Investigators believe it crashed near the town of Sixaola in Costa Rica. The cause of engine failure was never determined. The plane, nor its passengers, were ever seen again, leaving an unsolved mystery that would continue to baffle the world for decades.
The Initial Search For TC-48 In Costa Rica
A search operation was launched immediately following the crash. Within hours of the initial SOS signal, 36 planes from the U.S. Air Force flew from Miami, Panama and the Bahamas to scour the area. Helecopters searched the coastline. No clear evidence of the plane was found from the four day search.
U.S. Air Force personnel reported finding debris from the missing plane and life jackets floating in the ocean. The search was terminated. However, the U.S. search team reported seeing “green” life jackets. That was greatly disputed later. The plane had life-jackets that were orange, not green. And any evidence that was said to have been recovered from the site was never presented nor photographed, which was unusual for an emergency response. Usually at least some items are saved, but nothing in this case was ever produced. So, it was considered inconclusive.
“The case was closed. They saw life jackets floating in the water and decided that the plane crashed in the water.”Alejandro Zurro, Son of The Pilot
Decades of investigations concluded that the plane did crash on land. The final words of the pilots indicated that they were not above the ocean during the impact. After all, they were low elevation (good visibility to the ground, even with the rain) and had a difficult time locating the sea from their position.
Other conflicting accounts arose too. Indigenous people from the nearby coastal towns claimed they saw and heard a “low flying airplane screaming overhead before crashing in the distance”. Additionally, many people claimed to have found scrap pieces of metal from the plane and other items, but nothing was ever conclusive.
Mixed Messages About Plane Debris
This is where things get complicated. During the time of the crash, the United States government was keeping an eye on the Panama Canal with Naval ships, in order to control the area. When the plane crashed, the US Navy claimed they found debris and then quickly concluded their search. However, many people in Argentina and Panama believed that the United States government wanted to rush the search, even planted evidence, and then close the case early.
The United States government claimed that life jackets with emblems of Argentine forces were found by the USS Dodge County (LST-722), a United States Naval ship located 30 kilometers off the coast of Panama.
Additionally, the US forces that assisted in the search claimed they also found shirts, the ID of one of the cadets and remains of the internal fuselage cover. But the evidence was suspicious. As I mentioned before, the life jackets were the wrong color. And nobody every saw the debris that the US Navy had supposedly taken from the site, which raised questions about the story being fabricated.
Due to the distrust for the United States’ response, more than a dozen search efforts were launched, even as recent as 2015. But they returned without any success.
The TC-48 Was Not A Small Plane
The plane, shown above, was a Douglas DC-54 Skymaster with the aircraft registration number: TC-48. This model plane was the largest that existed at the time and was relatively large, even by today’s standards. It was the same model as the USAF C-54, another plane that went missing over Alaska in 1950. It’s not a small plane. One would think that due to its large size, surely some form of evidence would have been found.
The plane was originally purchased by the government of Argentina from the United States after World War II. The United States had a fleet of planes that was larger than necessary, so ally forces purchased some of the planes. The Argentine Air Force was one of the first to acquire the DC-54 Skymaster.
A Lie Was Uncovered
When the plane had originally taken off, another plane, Flight T-43, took off 6 minutes beforehand. The two planes were traveling to the same place and were both part of the Argentine Air Force. With TC-48 having limited space, one of the cadets gave his personal belongings to a friend on T-43 to free up legroom. When T-43 arrived safely in El Salvador as planned, they learned that TC-48 didn’t make it. Heartbroken for the loss of their friends, the cadet gave his friend’s belongings to the Argentine Air Force to return the items to his family.
However, the items weren’t returned to the family. In fact, the items were used as false evidence, to convince the family members that the ship had crashed into the ocean. They claimed that the belongings (including the ID, seen here) were taken from the sea where they claimed the plane had crashed. It wasn’t until the anonymous cadet sent a letter to the family that the lie was uncovered.
To this day, the cadet has never revealed himself, perhaps out of fear from the Argentine government.
Speculation On Flight TC-48’s Disappearance
There’s a lot of considerations, so I’ll discuss them one by one.
The plane had four engines: Engine’s 3 and 4, the two engines on the right wing supposedly lost power. If two of the engines were out, the remaining two engines would likely provide enough thrust to maintain the plane’s altitude. In fact, based on Álvaro Protti’s the pilots were flying comfortably on two engines. If it had been over the sea, it would have had enough power to at least bring the plane over land. Additionally, the engines were on the wings so the smoke generated from any engine fires would not have reduced the pilot’s visibility.
Weather In The Area
The weather conditions during that day likely limited visibility. However, they had reported checkpoints more than once, which means they were able to see what was below them. Their issues originally started while they were at 6,500 feet, an altitude where clouds generally start to form. Then they reduced altitude to 4,000 feet, which would have improved their visibility even more.
The weather in the area where the plane went missing is fairly predictable. The plane disappeared on November 3rd, in the Northwestern region of Panama. Therefore, we can approximately estimate with some degree of certainty, the visibility conditions of the pilot that flew the plane.
The dry season in Bocas Del Toro, Panama runs from October to April. It’s similar to the weather conditions of El Salvador, where I live. November 3rd is only two to three weeks into the dry season. During that part of the season, the rain would be rather light – more like heavy moisture or precipitation.
However, fog is a different issue. Fog can hit hard unexpectedly sometimes, especially after the rainy season, when the air is still moist from months of showers. And at the low altitude that the plane was flying, the fog could have impeded the pilot’s vision.
Three Possible Engine Conditions
The plane was last reported to be flying with only two engines. However, considering that the plane crashed somewhere, we must refine the possibilities with assumptions. Two engines, if flown properly, would have kept the flight in the air. Therefore, there are three possibilities.
- Two Engines: The plane maintained power with two engines, as was last reported.
- One Engine: The plane lost power to the third engine, therefore running on only one remaining engine.
- No Engines: The plane lost power to all engines.
In all three scenarios we must consider that at some point the plane became impossible to control due to a combination of the low-visibility conditions and engine problems.
With these three possibilities, plus an understanding of the laws of physics based on the plane’s makeup, plus a topographical map of the region, plus the last known location of the plane…we should be able to draw a map that identifies possible crash sites based on statistical probability.
Two Engine Failures
Airplanes can coast, or glide, without any engines being operational. Granted, without engine power pulling the plane forward, energy will need to be exchanged by losing altitude and therefore maintaining forward airspeed.
In the case of TC-48, two engines were non-operational on the same side of the plane. According to this fascinating article by technology.org, a Boeing 747 flying with two, or even only one engine is possible. However, that article states that flying with only one engine is “not enough to maintain altitude”. But with two engines, it’s possible to increase altitude.
Obviously a Douglas DC-54 Skymaster constructed in 1950 certainly doesn’t have the aerodynamics and other efficiencies that a Boeing 747 constructed in 1982 has. But it’s relevant and contributes to a potential conclusion.
How Far Could The Plane Feasibly Glide Without Any Power?
Gliding is an important consideration, and permits us to evaluate the approximate distance that TC-48 could have feasibly glided without any engine power.
On average, planes have a lift to drag ratio of about 10:1. This means that a plane without engine power will glide for 10 miles for every 1 mile in reduced altitude, under normal conditions. The TC-48 last recorded it’s altitude at 4,000 feet, which is a little less than a mile high in the sky (1 mile = 5,280 feet). That’s rather terrifying. That means that they would be able to travel less than 10 miles before accepting their fate.
Also, after some research, I found that the plane had a cruising speed of 240 miles per hour. With only two engines, the speed would be reduced. We’ll assume with two engines the speed would be lowered to 200 miles per hour. That’s 3.3 Miles Per Minute.
In other words, if they lost all engine power, they’d only be in the air for 3 minutes or less depending on the terrain in their flight path. If they maintained one engine, they may have been able to stay travel further, perhaps up to 20 miles. If they maintained two engines, hypothetically they could have maintained altitude and survived, but they didn’t, so that’s where things get murky.
Dropping Altitude Meant Greater Risk Of A Crash
Regardless of their engine status, they had a heavy load, therefore they wouldn’t have been able to increase in altitude. They would have been able to see the ground. Therefore, given their final words “where’s the sea?” suggests that they were over land (perhaps trying to find the sea?) and maybe crashed into the side of a mountain.
They were flying low with poor visibility and a lot of weight, so turning the plane would have been slower and navigating would have been more difficult. If they were having engine problems, it’s possible their compass and navigation systems were also malfunctioning.
The question we will forever wonder is…did the plane crash on land? (And if so, where the heck is the plane?)
Locating the plane is considered the Holy Grail to some people, like a hunt for rare treasure in the long-lost rainforests. Others simply want closure for the parents that lost their sons in the freak accident. Sadly, many parents and wives of those that were lost, have already passed away. But some, especially children, are still seeking answers.
The site of the crash continues to be an unsolved mystery more than 50 years later. It still stands as Argentina’s biggest aviation disappearance mystery.
Further Readings Regarding Flight TC-48:
A 2006 book was written by Ricardo Becerra: “TC-48: El Avión de los cadetes, la razón de una esperanza“
El Salvador’s Wikipedia Page: Vuelo TC-48 de la FAA (In Spanish)
Another Wikipedia Page in Spanish (You’ll need to translate this to English)
Story From “The Nation” Regarding The Distrust Involving the US Navy (Article in Spanish)
Tico Times – Fatal 1965 flight still a mystery
Avianca Flight 4 Was a Similar Plane That Crashed In Colombia – 8 People Survived.
TC48 C54G Argentina