Sunday, August 19, 2018

Ravenna, Ohio, pilot disappeared without a trace

Commercial pilot Neil Huntzinger (1900-1954) was a schoolbook salesman in Ohio.


Neil Huntzinger was an expert pilot. For decades, he traveled North America, Central America and South America for profit and adventure.

Then one morning, he pointed the nose of his airplane toward the horizon and vanished into thin air, leaving a mystery that has never been solved.

Huntzinger, an Iowa native, was a schoolbook salesman for the Crowell-Collier Publishing Co. of New York City. He was a regular visitor to Akron Public Schools, one of the many districts that dotted his Ohio territory.

During one sales trip to Portage County, he met Margaret Hubbell, the principal of Brimfield High School. Huntzinger swept her off her feet and lifted her into the clouds.

“Our honeymoon was spent on an airplane ferry trip,” his wife later reminisced.

Huntzinger, who had flown since 1929, had a commercial pilot’s license and supplemented his income by delivering small aircraft to customers. Married in 1946, the newlyweds spent that summer ferrying airplanes from the West Coast to the East Coast and down to Mexico and back.

The couple bought a home on Sandy Lake Road in Ravenna and enjoyed years of whirlwind trips in their private plane.

In August 1954, Huntzinger was hired to pick up a Super Piper Cub in Lock Haven, Pa., and fly it to South America. The airplane, which had been equipped as a crop duster, was bound for a customer in Bogota, Colombia.

The 53-year-old pilot snapped a few photos, waved goodbye to his wife and flew off into the unknown.

The last time that Margaret Huntzinger heard from her husband was Aug. 17 in Mexico. He had made it safely to Veracruz, a port city on the Gulf of Mexico, and planned to fly out the next morning to the Pacific Coast.

Neil Huntzinger took off at 6:45 a.m. Aug. 18 for a planned six-hour flight over the mountainous jungle to Tapachula in the Mexican state of Chiapas along the border with Guatemala. He had enough fuel for an all-day trip, though, and could have traveled 1,600 miles without stopping. He had made two previous trips and knew the route.

“He was in a big hurry to get back home because he’d been granted an extra week or two of summer vacation by his employers, the Crowell-Collier book publishing firm,” his wife later recalled. “Usually a careful pilot, it could be that, just this once, he decided not to bother with the lengthy customs at the Guatemalan border.”

In a bureaucratic error, Huntzinger’s flight plan was not forwarded to Tapachula, so the airport wasn’t on the lookout for him and didn’t notice that his plane didn’t arrive. When Margaret Huntzinger didn’t hear from her husband for several days, she began to worry.

She contacted her cousin Oliver P. Bolton, a U.S. congressman from Cleveland who published the Lake County News Herald and Dover Daily Reporter, and he arranged for the U.S. Air Force Rescue Squadron in Ellington, Texas, to conduct a search from Veracruz to Tapachula.

Unfortunately, the trail had gone cold in the 10 days that elapsed since Huntzinger was last seen. Bolton sent dispatches to all Central American nations and wired a cable to the Panama Canal Zone. No one reported seeing the missing airplane.

Margaret Huntzinger printed hundreds of posters in Spanish and distributed them in Mexico and Central America with the aid of the U.S. State Department. A $500 reward — about $4,600 today — was offered for information leading to the pilot.

She next turned to Ravenna High School Principal Wayne E. Watters, 43, the couple’s good friend who spoke fluent Spanish. Watters requested a leave of absence from the Ravenna school board to search for Huntzinger that summer. He was gone for nearly a month.

“Even though weather maps that day said the weather was good, a sudden cloud condition or shower may have caused him to lose his way,” Watters told the Beacon Journal. “The only instrument he had aboard was a compass.

“He could have been injured in a crash and be lying in some remote Indian village with a broken leg unable to persuade the Indians to get him out to safety.”

Watters spent three weeks crisscrossing the jungle with Mexican pilots. Natives about 60 miles north of the Oaxaca town of Ixtepec had reported hearing a plane in distress. A farmer south of the Veracruz town of Jesus Carranza had also heard a sputtering craft.

The rescue party searched a 100-mile radius of Ixtepec. Watters’ heart sank when they spied the twisted wreckage of an airplane in the jungle. When researchers reached the desolate locale, though, it turned out to be debris from a Mexican plane that had crashed years earlier.

Watters returned home after the fruitless mission. Col. Alfonso Gondarilla of the Mexican air force continued the search, periodically sending notes to Ravenna with the words: “No word of airplane.”

Weeks passed, then months. In March 1955, the Beacon Journal interviewed the pilot’s wife, who believed that her husband was still alive.

“You can’t rule out anything,” she said.

“The rainy season is over down there and still no trace of his plane has been found in the 75-mile area of jungle where he would most likely have crashed,” she told reporter Helen Waterhouse. “Now I’m beginning to put more credence in another theory.

“My hope is he may be in a Central American jail somewhere. Since all the trouble recently in Costa Rica, and the Communist situation in Guatemala, Neil’s plane could have been a prize they wanted.

“They might have imprisoned him in one of those countries after taking his plane.”

Months turned into years. The search ended and Neil Huntzinger was declared dead.

Watters theorized that his friend may have suffered a fatal heart attack or become otherwise incapacitated while flying over the mountains.

“If his plane came down in jungle growth, the trees could close over it, swallowing it from sight forever, perhaps,” he said.

Margaret Huntzinger was 86 when she died in Toledo in 1987. Wayne Watters retired to North Carolina and died in 1999 at age 88.

They went to their graves not knowing what happened to their husband and friend.

Nearly 65 years after Neil Huntzinger vanished, the jungle has not given up its secret.

Story and photo gallery: https://www.ohio.com

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