Thursday, January 10, 1980. A twin-engine private plane taxied onto the runway of the Shreveport, Louisiana, municipal airport. At the controls was Louis Benscotter, 47. Benscotter, a veteran pilot with 31 years of experience, was preparing to fly to Baton Rouge, a 40-minute hop across the state.
When he filed his flight plan with the Federal Aviation Administration, Benscotter indicated he would have two passengers. But when he left the ground he had only one: Robert E. “Bo” Rein, head football coach of Louisiana State University.
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The plane, a Cessna Conquest, took off at 9:22 p.m. Four minutes after takeoff, Fort Worth, Texas, Air Traffic Control advised Benscotter of heavy thunderstorms in the Baton Rouge area and suggested he bypass them.
The pilot asked for permission to divert east, toward Jackson, Mississippi. Fort Worth cleared Benscotter to go east and climb from 23,000 to 25,000 feet. Benscotter acknowledged his new flight plan. That was the last voice contact anyone would have with Cessna N441NC.
At 9:38, FAA radar showed the Conquest climbing above its assigned altitude and veering to the northeast. The FAA called the plane, but received no answer. Fort Worth ATC then contacted a Pan Am flight near the wandering Cessna and asked the airliner to warn Benscotter to check his en route radio frequency.
The Pan Am pilot heard Benscotter trying to respond to Fort Worth, but the transmission was weak. The Cessna pilot did not respond to air-to-air calls from the Pan Am plane, nor did he answer calls from an Eastern Airlines jet in the vicinity.
By now Rein and Benscotter had climbed to 33,000 feet, the operational ceiling of the Cessna. Their course was almost due east. The FAA continued trying to reach the wayward plane. Air traffic centers in Memphis, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C., joined in. None of them succeeded.
N441NC flew on, sometimes climbing as high as 40,500 feet. As the plane neared the North Carolina state line, the Air National Guard at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, North Carolina, was notified.
Two F-4 Phantom fighter jets were scrambled to intercept the Cessna. The National Guard pilots were ordered to close on the private plane and try to assess the problem. Why was Benscotter so far off course? Why did he not answer radio calls? Why was he so far above normal flying altitude for his model aircraft?
The Phantoms scrambled. Within minutes after take-off, they would intercept the Cessna somewhere in the sky over Raleigh, North Carolina.
The Big Bo
At age 30 he had become the youngest head football coach at an American college, and everyone agreed his career held great promise. Born July 20, 1945, Rein attended Ohio University and received a Bachelor’s degree in 1968.
Rein was also a football All-American in college, and was drafted by the Baltimore Colts of the NFL in 1968. Rein’s destiny did lie on the gridiron, but not in uniform. Injuries convinced him to coach rather than play.
His time at Raleigh’s North Carolina State was particularly productive, as Rein worked under colorful head coach Lou Holtz. Holtz left N.C. State in 1976 for a brief stint as head coach of the NFL’s New York Jets. The university chose Bo Rein to replace him.
In three seasons at N.C. State, Rein did so well he attracted the attention of other, larger college football programs. In November 1979 he left Raleigh to assume the top spot at Louisiana State.
Bo Rein was much admired by his players and respected by his coaching opponents. His energy was legendary. One fellow coach described Rein as “aggressive, tireless, persistent.”
In 1969, for example, Rein flew from Ohio to Las Vegas to play in a Continental League football game. As soon as the game was over he flew right back to Ohio. Rein enjoyed flying and never avoided it — even a short trip like Shreveport to Baton Rouge.
No Sign of Life
Two National Guard Phantoms closed on the lonely Cessna. In the darkness the jet pilots could see no interior lights in the plane. No one seemed to be at the controls. Repeated close-range radio calls brought no response. The Guardsmen even tried wagging their wings, hoping to attract attention. The Conquest flew on with no more reaction than a radio-controlled model.
The east coast was below them now, and the Phantoms had to break off the chase because their fuel was running low. The Air Force took up the pursuit, rousing an F-106 fighter out of Langley Air Force Base in southern Virginia.
By the time the F106 pilot, Captain Daniel Zoerb, found the Cessna, it was flying along at 40,600 feet, eastward over the sea. Zoerb followed, and N441NC began a gradual descent to 25,000 feet. The Air Force pilot closed in and saw no signs of life aboard, only a red glow in the cabin that probably came from the Cessna’s instrument panel.
At 25,000 feet the Conquest dropped a wing and fell into a spin. Zoerb watched it spiral down a hundred miles off the coast of Norfolk. N441NC never recovered from its spin and plunged into the sea.
Local weather was poor, visibility no more than 15 miles, and waves were running two to three feet high. Water temperature was only 40 degrees. The crash occurred shortly before 1 a.m. on January 11.
Seventy miles from the scene of the crash, the Coast Guard cutter Taney was on patrol. Word of the downed plane reached the cutter, which immediately put its helm over. An area 40 by 75 miles was assigned to be searched. A Coast Guard C130 aircraft joined the operation.
At 6:30 a.m., the cutter Cherokee took over the rescue operation and kept it up all day. Some debris was sighted but not recovered: a wheel thought to be the Cessna’s and some orange trim from the fuselage. That was all.
The Conquest had been a troublesome plane for Cessna. The model was grounded twice by the Federal Aviation Administration, in 1977 and 1979, because of failures in the tail structure. After the second grounding, all existing planes were modified to correct the fault.
The FAA recertified Cessna Conquests as safe to fly in September 1979. The history of tail structure failures does not seem to have had anything to do with what happened to Benscotter and Rein.
The twin turboprop wasn’t just a “grasshopper.” It was a million-dollar executive transport. On top of his 31 years of flying experience, Benscotter had passed a two-week training course on flying the Conquest. Shortly before its final flight, N441NC had made a round trip to Houston without incident. So what happened?
Suspicion immediately centered on pilot incapacitation. Wandering off course, flying to extreme altitudes, and the failure to answer the radio all pointed to Benscotter and Rein being unable to respond to these problems.
Whatever happened must have happened to both men at the same time. Had Benscotter alone been stricken (say, by a heart attack), Rein should have been able to call for help.
Carbon monoxide from the engines’ exhaust might have overcome two men in a light plane, but it seems unlikely in this case. Instead of a single engine in the nose, the Cessna Conquest had two wing-mounted turboprops. In flight, the slipstream would tend to wash away any exhaust fumes long before they penetrated the fuselage.
The National Transportation Safety Board zeroed in on oxygen deprivation as the most probable cause of the strange last flight of Cessna N441NC. Hypoxia, or lack of oxygen, is a common threat to anyone flying above 10,000 feet.
The Conquest’s cabin was pressurized, like a civilian airliner’s. An 11-cubic-foot oxygen tank was provided, and an elaborate safety system was built into the plane to prevent the pilot or passengers being deprived of vital oxygen.
For example, if the pressurization system was not turned on during the pre-flight check, a red warning light would come on when the plane reached 10,650 feet. Normal, healthy adults would be conscious at this altitude and couldn’t fail to notice the warning.
If they did, at 14,500 feet emergency oxygen masks would pop out, just like the masks on commercial airliners. It takes 20 minutes of low pressure before hypoxia sets in, and between two men, one of them should have been able to take emergency measures.
As a final safety check, the heating and cooling systems in the Conquest would not function at any altitude if the cabin pressurization was left off.
Though hypoxia seems like the best explanation for what happened to Benscotter and Rein, there are notable objections to the theory. The first is the fact that the trouble began only minutes after takeoff, when the Cessna was not yet at high altitude.
Failure to actuate the plane’s oxygen system seems improbable for a pilot of Benscotter’s experience. Mechanical failure isn’t likely, either. The Cessna passed all its safety checks in Shreveport before the flight. N441NC was a relatively new plane, not worn out or rickety. Before its last flight the airframe had only 38 hours flying time on it.
Why did none of the jet pilots chasing the Cessna see anyone on board? If Benscotter had passed out at the controls, his body should have been visible, strapped in his seat.
The slowly climbing attitude of the plane was probably the result of the pilot trimming it to climb as per his instructions from Fort Worth ATC, early in the flight. Then for some unknown reason Benscotter left his seat; he must have, else the weight of his inert feet and legs on the foot pedals would have seriously affected the plane’s course.
Hypoxia can lead to euphoria, but no suggestion was found that Rein or Benscotter left the plane while in flight. Small civilian planes don’t carry parachutes.
From the start, the FAA took the investigation of the loss of Cessna N441NC very seriously. In May 1980 a spokesman announced that some 20 possible causes of the incident were being studied, ranging from failure of the Conquest’s oxygen system to sudden cabin depressurization from a mid-air collision with a bird.
(Neither Captain Zoerb nor the Air National Guard pilots mentioned seeing any external damage to the Cessna.) The FAA refused to endorse any specific theory as long as their investigation continued.
Others involved in the mystery were not so patient. In March 1980, the Nichols Construction Company, owners of the plane and employer of Louis Benscotter, filed suit against the FAA and their own insurance company, Insurance Company of America.
Nichols had hired a private investigator, Frank McDermott of McLean, Virginia, to conduct a parallel inquiry into the incident. McDermott specialized in aircraft accidents and had many previous investigations to his credit.
Nichols decided to sue the FAA because FAA Washington headquarters refused to allow McDermott to hear or copy the tape recordings of air traffic controllers’ conversations with Louis Benscotter.
The FAA specifically ordered its regional offices not to give McDermott access to the tapes, even though they had always allowed private investigators such access in the past. The ostensible reason for this stonewalling was that the official inquiry wasn’t yet over.
Jack Barker, of the FAA’s Atlanta office, told the press he couldn’t understand why the tapes were being withheld from McDermott. After all, the only conversation between Benscotter and Fort Worth ATC consisted of ordinary takeoff clearances and requests to change altitude黍r so the FAA reported. Nichols wanted to collect the insurance on the million-dollar aircraft and could not do so until the FAA investigation was concluded.
No wreckage or remains were ever recovered. The area of ocean where the Cessna crashed is more than 1,100 feet deep, making salvage impractical. In April 1980, Judge E. Maurice Braswell declared Rein and Benscotter legally dead so that their estates could be settled.
It was not until December 10, 1980, that the NTSB issued its official report on the loss of Cessna N441NC. After almost a year of theorizing and wrangling, a spokesperson for the Board said, “The Board was unable to determine a cause because it was unable to find any wreckage. This is the end, unless some new evidence is offered and the case reopened.”
All that remains is the mystery. Something happened to Rein and Benscotter within minutes of their take-off from Shreveport. Something rendered both men helpless, yet allowed the Conquest to fly on its own for more than a thousand miles.
Auto pilot could do that, but that presumes Benscotter was able to activate it. The plane climbed to heights greater than it was designed for, and it most likely crashed because it ran out of fuel.
There have been many aviation mysteries over the years, from the disappearances of the French dirigible Dixmude in 1923 and flying ace Charles Nungesser in 1927, to the crew of Navy blimp L-8, the Star Tiger, the Star Ariel, and more.
But all these machines, their pilots and passengers, vanished over featureless seas, without any witnesses to record their fates. The last flight of Louis Benscotter and Bo Rein is an entire other dimension of mystery. It was tracked across well-populated and well-monitored countryside, chased by military jets, investigated by federal and private experts — and yet there are no answers.
Somehow this incident is all the more unsettling for having happened under such close observation. It shakes our faith in our omnipresent technology, much as a public tragedy like the Challenger disaster did. In that case answers were found, but the empty sky and deep Atlantic yield no answers to the disappearance of Coach Bo Rein, no matter how long we ponder them.