Forty-six years after a supersonic rocket plane exploded and crashed into Lake Ontario, the aircraft will be the object of a search mission headed by a local businessman.
The X-2 plane, one of two built at the Bell Aircraft plant in Wheatfield in the late 1940s and early 1950s, broke free of its B-50 mother ship and plunged into Lake Ontario while on a test flight in 1953.
Louis Ricciuti, Niagara Falls entrepreneur and local expert on the X-series aircraft, is scheduled to meet with Air Force officials today to obtain final approval to attempt to salvage the test plane from a depth of 800 feet, about 80 miles northeast of Youngstown.
The airplane could be recovered as early as next spring, Ricciuti said.
If found, the remains of the plane will be assembled and displayed in the Niagara Aerospace Museum in the Summit Park Mall.
"It would be a remarkable recovery and a significant addition, not only to the museum, but to aircraft history," said Hugh M. Neeson, a museum trustee and former vice president and general manager of Bell Aerospace Textron, formerly Bell Aircraft.
Ricciuti, who grew up within earshot of the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, has spent the past five years researching the X-2 and its watery grave.
After talking with former test pilots and government sources and sifting through various archives, Ricciuti said he has narrowed the search area to a five-by-two-mile quadrant at the dead center of the lake.
The B-50 aircraft, with the X-2 hanging underneath, had taken off from the air base on Porter Road on what should have been an hourlong flight to test the pilot's ability to climb into the X-2's cockpit while it was attached to the bomber. The fueling process also was being tested, so the rocket plane's tanks were pressurized.
The aircraft were flying at 30,000 feet halfway through the flight in restricted military air space when gaskets on the X-2's liquid oxygen and nitrogen tanks ruptured.
The test plane exploded and was jettisoned by the crippled B-50. Pilot J.L. "Skip" Ziegler and flight engineer Frank Walco were killed and another crew member was severely burned. With one of its four engines knocked out, the B-50 limped back to the air base. The bomber was so badly damaged, it was dismantled and never flown again.
Ziegler was a fine pilot, said Jack E. Heine, who worked as a flight technician for Ziegler at the time and is now president of the board of trustees of the aerospace museum.
A photograph of Ziegler, who was 32 when he died, hangs in the museum's hall of fame.
Much of the stainless steel body of the X-2 may have withstood the impact and almost half a century at the bottom of the lake.
"The airplane was structurally sound," said Neeson. "I'm sure it broke apart, but there may be sections that are intact."
After the only other stainless steel X-2 crashed at Edwards Air Force Base in 1956, it was "remarkably intact," Ricciuti said.
"There is no better environment to preserve the plane than the cold, fresh water of Lake Ontario," Ricciuti said.
The swept-winged X-2 rocket planes were preceded by the X-1 series. Several X-1's were built at the Bell plant in the 1940s, including one flown by Chuck Yeager to break the sound barrier in 1947.