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Media Life: Sierra’s 1957 lost Lockheed mystery, Auburn’s Lost Rocker find new life

By: Gus Thomson, Reporter/Columnist
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Media Life’s Gus Thomson can be reached at gust@goldcountrymedia.com or (530) 852-0232.

      

The deep nooks and crannies of the Sierra Nevada hold their share of mysteries.

And one of the strangest unfolded in the spring and summer of 1957, when Lt. David Steeves emerged from the mountains with a survival tale to end all survival tales.

Steeves and his sleek, silver Lockheed T-33 training jet had been missing almost two months on what started out as a routine training mission from Hamilton Air Force Base near San Francisco. The T-33 – nicknamed the T-Bird – was on its way at up to 600 mph for a Selma, Ala., air base.

But the routine turned to mystery when Steeves and his T-Bird disappeared off the grid on May 9, 1957. The disappearance stymied rescue efforts and the Air Force eventually declared Steeves legally dead.

Fifty-four days after vanishing, Steeves emerged with a tale of survival that started after an explosion in the cockpit forced him to bail out over the Sierra. After parachuting to the ground, he would wander until finding a ranger’s cabin in Kings Canyon National Park.

He told rescuers that he found fish hooks, beans and canned ham – enough to tide him over as he resumed his search for civilization. That ended when he came upon some campers and was rescued.

For a nation and military wary of losing technological secrets to the Soviet Union, however, Steeves’ story sounded too pat. And where was the plane? In those Cold War days, one of the leading theories was that he had flown the jet to the Soviet Union.

A Saturday Evening Post payday to tell his story was canceled as fears began to mount and the plane’s whereabouts continued to be an object of severe speculation. As the hubbub mounted, Steeves’ family life crumbled and he was branded a liar by the media.

Steeves left the Air Force under a cloud and would find work designing planes. But he would spend the rest of his life, off and on, traveling back into the Sierra in rented planes, searching without success for the missing T-33. He died in a plane crash in 1965.

His absolution would come a dozen years after his death. Steeves’ contention that his plane crashed was backed up in 1977, when Boy Scouts found the plane’s canopy while hiking in the Kings Canyon area.

Nothing more has been found. And there is even some credence to the idea that the plane kept on flying until it ran out of fuel over the Pacific Ocean. But the Steeves story continues to fascinate. In mid-June, geologist, cyclist and runner Simon Donato will lead a team of ultra-endurance athletes and scientists into the Sierra to again search for the legendary T-33.

Donato, founder of the Adventure Science organization, and a crew of 12 will be attempting to put the mystery to rest. The group includes archaeologists, a search-and-rescue team leader, ultra-runners, an Army Ranger, and rock climber.

Adventure Science has previously embarked on a search for missing billionaire flier Steve Fossett in the Sierra, tested five endurance athletes in a 125-kilometer study to test core strength impacts in ultramarathons and trekked 100 miles through South Dakota’s Badlands National Park to experience the wilderness that inspired Theodore Roosevelt.

Rocking across the pond

Auburn’s Al Hendrix is proof that some people may not just be getting older, but they may be getting a whole lot better.

Hendrix, dubbed America’s Lost Rocker, has returned from headlining the 52nd Hemsby Rock ‘n’ Roll Weekender festival on the east coast of England. He reports performing in fine voice for a packed house at the festival, with an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 rock fans taking in the show. Backed by a crack British backup band, Hendrix belted out a set of rock ‘n’ roll classics and rockabilly tinged recordings he made in the late 1950s and early 1960s on the Tally, Liberty and ABC-Paramount labels.

It’s been quite a year for Hendrix, who also traveled to Spain in September for a concert there. But England was something else. He spent more than an hour signing autographs and selling out CDs he had brought with him. Among the surprises were Brits with copies for sleeve signing of his “Monkey Bite” 45 from 1962 and “Young and Wild” from 1960. A copy of “Monkey Bite” recently sold for $433, he noted.

“I wish I had a box of them,” Hendrix cracked wisely.

Hendrix, 78, returned to California and has already played a gig at the Torch Club in Sacramento, with plans to play another in June in Redding. There are also some rumblings that there may be a return trip eastward to France in the near future.

Media Life’s Gus Thomson can be reached at gust@goldcountrymedia.com or (530) 852-0232.