heroic 54-day survival ordeal in the Sierra Nevada wilderness

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David A. Steeves, circa June 1957.

Pilot’s Story of Survival Doubted

On an early weekday in July of 1954, starved to the bone, ankles swollen and clothing tattered, a disheveled 23-year-old man, stumbling through Kings National Park, a nearly 500,000-acre spread of rugged mountain country east of California’s San Joaquin Valley, stepped into a campground with an incredible tale. So incredible, many would ultimately doubt its veracity.

This is the story of a 1950’s Cold War scandal that ruined an Air Force pilot’s career and rocked his marriage – all when the news media stirred up false suspicions about his heroic 54-day survival ordeal in the Sierra Nevada wilderness.

In the 1950s the cold war was escalating; the KGB had just been established and the Russians were gearing up to launch the Sputnik into orbit. Vietnam was split at the 17th parallel and McCarthy’s witch hunt had raised the ardor to a fevered pitch.

America was engaged in a race of military mite and super power status came with a focus on state of the art aircraft with superior handling and missile firing accuracy. Readiness was paramount and Lockheed’s T-33 was a front line training jet for advanced level Air Force pilots.

Only a few trusted high level men were engaged in the secrecy of aircraft training, testing and development.

May 9th, 1957, one of those young top guns, 23 year old David Arthur Steeves, took off on a solo flight from Hamilton Air Force Base to Craig Air Force Base near Selma, California. The flight route took the young pilot over the Sierra Nevada near the rugged backcountry of Kings Canyon National Park. A routine flight plan was filed, nothing out of the ordinary except, the young pilot and his top level aircraft disappeared from radar and never landed at the central valley Air Force base. A search and rescue mission was launched but failed to find any trace of the pilot or his airplane. First Lieutenant Steeves was declared dead and a death certificate was mailed to his family.

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