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Robert Hyman helped search for fellow adventurer Steve Fossett. The undertaking inspired him and other Fossett searchers to create MAST. (Robin Jacoway/Courtesy Robert Hyman)

Cold Case

A new team sets out to solve old disappearances.

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On Thursday, October 26, 1944, 12-year-old Frank Jacobs did what he always did when school got out: He walked a half-mile to the Manhattan Beach pier, where he liked to fish for halibut. Jacobs settled in a spot on the pier’s north side, which gave him a view of aircraft departing from Mines Field (now Los Angeles International Airport), about three and a half miles south. He loved catching a glimpse of an American fighter.

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Airplanes departing Mines usually head west, over the bay. And that autumn afternoon was no different: Jacobs noticed the roar of a single-engine airplane climbing over the water. Though the boy built balsawood models of aircraft used in World War II, he could not identify this airplane. But he suspected it was a P-51 Mustang.

Suddenly something odd happened.

“There was this sputtering sound and then total silence,” recalls Jacobs. He watched stunned as the aircraft pitched upward, then pitched nose down and began falling. Jacobs alerted three bystanders, but none seemed concerned. Seconds later, the aircraft disappeared silently into the fog.

Jacobs climbed onto the pier railings and strained to get a better look. “I don’t even know if it went in the water because the cloud deck was so low,” he says. “But I assume it couldn’t have pulled up because there was no more engine noise.”

Jacobs spoke to a nearby shopkeeper, who said if there had been an accident, the authorities knew about it. The boy went home and told his father; “He didn’t believe me either.”

Several days passed; the newspapers reported nothing. Months went by, then years.

In 2005, Jacobs was reading the Daily Breeze, a South Bay paper in Los Angeles, and saw a story that finally identified what he had seen that day. It was indeed a P-51D Mustang, factory-fresh, and the pilot was a woman, Gertrude Tompkins.

Tompkins, 32, had been flying for the Women Airforce Service Pilots, a World War II program that enlisted 1,074 women to ferry military aircraft, primarily between U.S. military bases. She had been part of a flight of three Mustangs headed to Newark, New Jersey, on a hopscotch route that would take four days. But her canopy had a locking problem, so her two fellow pilots took off without her, flying over water and then banking left, toward Palm Springs. Tompkins took off a few hours later, following the same flight path.

When the first two pilots arrived in Palm Springs and didn’t see Tompkins, they assumed the canopy malfunction had grounded her. But after landing in Newark, they learned that nobody had seen or heard from Tompkins.

About Michael Behar

Based in Boulder, Colorado, Michael Behar (michaelbehar.com) writes about aerospace, adventure travel, science, and the environment.

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