Weird History
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A Missing Test Plane, 54 Days In The Mountains, And A Communist Conspiracy: The Story Of Lt. Steeves

Updated October 29, 2019 88.8k views11 items

The survival story of David Steeves was one that stunned the nation. He crawled out of the Sierra Nevada Mountains after being deemed "missing" for 54 days. Lieutenant Steeves was piloting a test flight for one of the Lockheed aircrafts (a T-33A) for the United States Air Force when he went down in an unknown location in May 1957. He not only managed to survive the crash, but he was also able to feed himself and travel over 20 miles over rugged and unforgiving terrain despite injuring both of his ankles. 

When he first returned, the media adored him. However, his time as a hero was short. Because no one could find the lost Lockheed T-33A, he went from legendary survivor to possible Cold War traitor almost overnight. His marriage fell apart, his reputation was ruined, and the crash essentially turned Lt. David Steeves's entire life upside-down. 

  • Steeves Was A Lieutenant In The Air Force And An Experimental Aircraft Test Pilot

    David Steeves served in the United States Air Force from 1955 to 1965, ending his career as a First Lieutenant. He flew test and training flights, including a Lockheed T-33A Shooting Star Two-Seat Trainer. He ended up crashing the T-33A and left the plane behind in order to survive. However, after his return and all the accusations of him giving the plane to Communists, Steeves eventually requested a full discharge from military service. 

  • The T-33A Went Down In The Sierra Nevada Mountains

    Photo: US Air Force / Wikimedia Commons

    Lt. Steeves was conducting a short test flight from the San Francisco area to Alabama on May 9, 1957, when something went wrong. He later told reporters "something blew up" during interviews, immediately followed by him blacking out. Once he regained consciousness, he ejected himself from the plane and parachuted into the Sierra Nevada Mountains below. 

  • He Had Only His Broken Parachute To Keep Him Warm In The Cold Mountains

    The temperatures in the icy Sierras where Steeves crash-landed were reported as ranging from 25 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. He had landed in the 11,000 foot range, in an area that even experienced mountain climbers would have struggled with. To battle the cold, Steeves used his parachute: "All I had to keep warm with was my parachute, so I wrapped up in it."

  • He Injured Both Ankles In The Fall And Had To Drag Himself Back To Civilization

    After parachuting out of the falling plane, Lt. Steeves hit the ground hard and badly sprained both of his ankles. A reporter from the LA Times described his escape through the mountains as "crawling, slipping and sliding to safety over 20 torturous miles of high country considered impassable even now to trained mountaineers." Steeves managed to get claw his way back to society somehow, almost drowning once when he attempted to cross a river.