A jet disappeared in Vermont over 53 years ago. Experts believe they’ve found it in Lake Champlain

Kristina Nikita Coffey was four years old when the plane her father had boarded lost contact with air controllers and disappeared over Lake Champlain in Vermont on a snowy night in 1971. The crash site was never found, but over the years she held out hope it would be uncovered, steadily accumulating newspaper clippings and documents related to the case.

So it was a surprise when her cousin, Barbara Nikitas, called on May 28 with news: An underwater searcher had found the jet on which her father, George Nikita, had embarked with four other men 53 years ago.

“When I called her, I think she was stunned because we didn’t know Garry was doing the search,” Nikitas told CNN, referring to the searcher. “It was a shock on all levels.”

After seeing the photos of the jet underwater, Nikita Coffey says she knew it was the right plane.

“I knew it,” she said of the plane carrying her father. “I’ve looked at that picture of the plane my whole entire life.”

What happened aboard the plane that night is still a mystery.

On January 27, 1971, the aircraft departed Burlington, Vermont, toward Providence, Rhode Island. The takeoff appeared normal to the control tower, according to Garry Kozak, the underwater searcher who found the jet. But shortly after takeoff, the controller lost all radar contact. There was no mayday or communication from the jet, Kozak says. On board were Nikita, Donald Myers, Robert R. Williams, III, Frank B. Wilder and Kirby Windsor.

An initial search for the jet was unsuccessful, Kozak says. It was winter and the bitter cold temperatures had frozen the lake, making immediate subsequent searches impossible. By spring, the ice melted and searches recovered some debris from the plane. More search attempts followed. Over the next 53 years, more than 17 searches were carried out to find the plane, all unsuccessful, according to Kozak.

The plane is seen before it crashed on January 27, 1971. - Courtesy Garry Kozak
The plane is seen before it crashed on January 27, 1971. - Courtesy Garry Kozak

Kozak first learned of the plane crash from a friend in the 1980s. The fact that so many attempts had failed intrigued him.

“I’ve always been challenged by finding stuff underwater, so that was the personal satisfaction for me to solve something that everybody else had sort of forgotten,” Kozak told CNN. “Secondly, for the family because I had spoken with some of the family members back in 2014 when one of the searches was being put together.”

When searches were conducted, Kozak believes the plane was within the searched areas but had been overlooked on scans.

“I’ve worked on many aircraft crashes over the years, but I have a pretty big mental library on the kind of anomaly I should be watching for when I read data,” Kozak said.

Kozak says in his field some may overlook what seems to be a pile of rocks. Frank K. Wilder, the son of passenger Frank B. Wilder, agrees. He says he knew the plane was going to be hard to find based on this fact.

“Most people think the airplane is in one piece and it’s on the bottom and that would be easy to find, but in reality the plane is debris to a lot of small pieces and that’s a lot harder to identify,” Wilder said.

Lost and found again

The jet was found in approximately 200 feet of water west of Juniper Island, about 3 miles from Burlington. From the video and pictures captured, experts could see the plane’s red and black accent stripes. Nearby, they also saw two turbine engines and a broken wing. The wreck site was left undisturbed.

Even though it was over 53 years ago, the passengers’ children still remember the day their lives changed forever.

“I remember my mom just crying and this terrible scream. I don’t think I really understood at that point what it all meant,” Wilder said.

Nikitas still remembers the impact the crash had on her mother.

“My mother and her two brothers were very close. They were always there for each other, and I think she felt like, ‘I can’t be there for my brother. I can’t find him. I can’t properly bury.’ That always resonated with me,” she said.

After many years of search attempts and some false leads, families had to move on, said Charles C. Williams, son of Robert Williams, III.

“It’s hard to explain the limbo that this created,” Williams said. “Six months turns into a year and a year turns into two and there’s just been no answers. That’s really super, super hard on families.”

But the search never stopped for many of them.

With her cousin, Nikita Coffey started reaching out to other families cited in the news articles she saved. They say their group has been a source of support.

“This event happened, and I think it’s probably fair to say we all went our separate ways. You live your life and you feel like you’re carrying this burden by yourself,” Williams said.

“It’s been wonderful because most people don’t understand what you’re going through, but with this group, we understand and it’s nice to have that support,” Wilder added.

As more news outlets report the story, Williams says that people have reached out amid a resurgence of details about the case.

“For them to have been lost and now kind of found again. I think it’s really neat that people are seeing that and reaching out, but for the families it’s also got a sense of sadness to it because now we know,” Williams said.

Nikita Coffey thanks every person who volunteered their time to help them find the crash site. Those many searches allowed them to cross locations off when another one began.

“They’re family now. I can’t say enough about them. I can’t thank them enough for their tireless effort,” Nikita Coffey said.

Now that the crash site was found, the National Transportation Safety Board will make its evaluation to confirm it’s the right aircraft. The agency has received an information package about the case from the Federal Aviation Administration, according to a NTSB spokesperson.

“We will be evaluating the specifics of what was found, and the degree of certainty to which we are able to positively link it back to the wreckage that was located. Following that, if and when any of that wreckage were recovered, we would determine what level of examination would be appropriate given what is recovered and what condition it is in,” spokesperson Peter C. Knudson told CNN in a statement.

While the crash site may have been found, it’s important to the passengers’ children the next generation also knows about their fathers.

“That’s what we really want to get across,” she said. “(They were) five amazing men that left a hole in many people’s hearts because of their loss, not just their family, their colleagues, their friends.”

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