Lake Sakakawea Crash
Mathematics helped solve the mystery of a fighter jet that crashed through the ice of Lake Sakakawea on this date in 1969. For thirty-five years, The F-106 Delta Dart interceptor from the Minot Air Force base had rested on the bottom of the lake near the Four Bears Bridge at New Town.
Captain Merlin Riley was the pilot. On a training mission from Minot Air Force Base, he rolled the plane and lost control. He ejected, parachuting to safety. A rancher on a snowmobile picked him up.
The ten-year-old jet had cost over three million dollars when built. At the time of the crash, the military recovered some equipment, but found the ice too unstable to attempt a general recovery. The crash all but faded from memory, but in 1991, using the Air Force's original survey notes, members of the state's Professional Society of Land Surveyors took up the challenge of finding the wreckage.
Reference points from the original survey weren’t always helpful, with notations that included a “white rock on a windy hill” and a tomato juice can by a survey stake. Other observation points had washed into the lake. The task proved difficult, but basing new calculations on a bridge pier landmark – using geometry and trigonometry – they identified a new search area. In the fall of 2004, thirteen years after the challenge started, a diver found a piece of fuel line in thirty-five feet of cold, dark water.
The wreck site was about four miles northwest of the Four Bears Bridge. The divers went down several times in zero visibility, eventually bringing up around 30 pieces of wreckage, proof they had finally found the plane that went down 47 years ago today.
Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura