Fatal 1965 flight still a mystery

November 10, 2011

Working as a pilot in the Argentine air force, Mario Zurro, then 37, frequently traveled long distances from his home in Córdoba, in central Argentina. While away, he would write long, vivid letters to his wife and four children. 

In October 1965, Mario and 68 Argentine air force cadets boarded a Douglas DC-54 with the aircraft registration number TC-48. The cadets, mostly aged 20-22, had recently graduated from flight school and would soon be promoted to officers. As a rite of passage, they would travel to Chile, Panama, El Salvador and the United States. Commander Mario Zurro was assigned to chaperone the cadets.

In Chile, Mario wrote his wife who was pregnant with the couple’s fifth child,  describing the plane, the group’s mood and the northern Chilean landscape. It was the last letter he sent. 

At the time, the DC-54 was one of the largest planes available. After flying from Chile to Panama, and took off again on the morning of Nov. 3, 1965 from near the Canal Zone. The flight plan took it north along the Caribbean coast, where it would bank west at the port of Limón before heading north to El Salvador. 

At about 6 a.m., pilots radioed that they were crossing a checkpoint near Panama’s Bocas del Toro archipelago along the Costa Rican border. Minutes later, they radioed for help. Álvaro Protti, a commercial pilot for LACSA airlines, heard their SOS.  

“He was calling out an SOS and saying that one engine had failed and another was on fire,” Protti said. “The pilots were very scared. … It was a difficult thing to hear. It’s something I will never forget.” 

En route to Miami, Protti alerted air traffic control in San José and Panama. Pilots said they would try to land in Limón.

They never made it.

What Happened? 

Alejandro Zurro, Mario’s son, is now 51, bald and has thick brown eyebrows and wide chestnut eyes. Like his father, he joined the air force and later became a commercial pilot.

Like other pilots familiar with the case, he believes the pilots on the doomed flight headed for land at the first sign of trouble. 

“If the checkpoint was announced over Bocas del Toro, the plane was flying near the coastline not far from land,” Zurro said. “With an engine on fire and one failed, two engines were still functioning. There should have been enough power to [get] back to land.” 

In a 2006 book about the incident, “TC-48: El Avión de los cadetes, la razón de una esperanza” (“TC-48: Flight of the Cadets, the Reason for Hope”), Ricardo Becerra wrote that within hours of the SOS, 36 planes from the U.S. Air Force flew from Miami, Panama and the Bahamas to scour the area. Helicopters searched near Bocas del Toro and the eastern Costa Rican coast. 

After the initial search, U.S. Air Force personnel reported finding remnants of the missing plane and life jackets floating in the ocean. The search was terminated. 

“The case was closed,” Zurro said. “They saw life jackets floating in the water and decided that the plane crashed in the water.” 

But nothing was recovered – no debris, no suitcases, no trace of evidence. The life jackets seen by the U.S. search team turned out to be green. In Mario Zurro’s final letter to his wife, he described orange life jackets. 

Other conflicting accounts surfaced in the days after the plane’s disappearance. Residents of Turrialba, a town on the Caribbean slope, said that they saw a low-flying plane screaming overhead, followed by a massive explosive in the distance. Becerra’s book describes an indigenous boy from the southern Caribbean region of Talamanca who died days after the plane’s disappearance. While at the National Children’s Hospital in San José, the boy said he saw wreckage of a plane with four motors near his home. 

Prompted by family members of the missing passengers, the Argentine air force officially reopened the case years later.  

“Many people have reported finding pieces of metal, or a uniform or part of a propeller,” said Edwin Araya, a helicopter pilot who  has participated in several subsequent search efforts. “Every time we hear a report, we investigate it. But 46 years later, no concrete evidence has been found on land or at sea.” 

The Search Continues

Since 1965, dozens of searches have been carried out in the mountains of Limón and Cartago provinces, as well as at sea. Family members have visited Costa Rica and searched the rugged Talamanca rain forest, to no avail. Alejandro Zurro’s oldest sister, who was 8 at the time of her father’s disappearance, heads an organization of family members who refuse to give up. 

“It was my mother’s mission to get closure on where my father’s body was,” Zurro said. “She died not knowing what happened to him. At his funeral, there was no body to bury.”     

Zurro returned to Costa Rica last week on the 46th anniversary of the plane’s disappearance. Next year, Zurro and Araya, who met while in the Argentine air force, will conduct another search by land in Limón province. Funded by the Argentine government, it will be the sixth search in 10 years.  

Armed with new NASA satellite imagery of the area, a group of six men will travel by helicopter to the thick, mountainous forest. Zurro is optimistic.

“I know that the plane landed on the ground; I’m sure of it. Had it crashed into the water, something would have been found or washed ashore,” Zurro said. “We will continue searching the mountains. … The more we search, the better the odds we have of finding something.” 

Last week, Zurro and Araya met a resident from the eastern mountain town of Florida de Siquirres who remembers seeing a plane flying low to the ground when he was boy. Some details seem to fit, while others don’t. 

“When you’ve spent most of your life searching for evidence about where your father disappeared,” Zurro said, “you’ll take any clues you can get.”

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