The Phantom Plane Incident

A no
South Mountain

Note: Before you say “I read on other sites that this incident happened near Duncannon and not Newville,” I want to state this incident has been recorded incorrectly in many modern reports and articles, which places it in the Dark Hollow region west of Duncannon, along Route 274. There is a Dark Hollow on State Game Lands 256 and I will admit I too was guilty of starting my search there. Only after re-reading the original newspaper articles did I realize that the “phantom plane incident” happened on South Mountain in the region between Dillsburg and Newville.

Standing along Route 174, I studied South Mountain, part of the mountain range that creates the southeastern border of the Cumberland Valley in Pennsylvania and Maryland. The mountains have been an influence on me, bringing me back numerous times to discover the histories and mysteries that have been lost and forgotten over the years.

This trip was no different as I arrived to investigate an event which happened here in 1955 that still defies explanation.

November 18, 1955 started out as an ordinary day in the Cumberland Valley as residents prepared for the winter storm that was headed their way. The storm had brought misery and death with it as it crossed the plains. That afternoon, snow would begin falling, dumping an inch to three inches in most locations, but in the mountains up to eight inches would fall that night.

The storm brought with it an event that would leave residents of the Cumberland Valley with questions that could not be answered.

Reports began pouring in to Dale Murphy, who was the civil defense coordinator for Cumberland County, that the people around Newville heard, and in some cases saw, an aircraft that was in obvious trouble. Mary Toner, a Civil Defense ground observer, spotted the plane flying just above the treetops. She lost sight of it as it disappeared behind a distant hill and a couple seconds later she heard what she described as a large explosion. In addition to Mary’s observations of the doomed plane, two other Civil Defense observers in the region, along with numerous citizens, reported seeing and hearing it.

Dale Murphy responded by sending two Civil Defense planes over the area. Neither plane reported seeing any debris or any signs of a crash. Despite the planes failing to find any signs of a wreck, a group of seventy plus men set out to search the area on foot in the Dark Hollow region approximately nine miles southwest of Mount Holly Springs.

The search of the mountainous region came up empty. But things were about to get stranger.

That evening a flare, the first of several, was spotted coming from the mountains at 9:45 p.m. Calls flooded in as the residents of Newville reported seeing the flare.

Calls were made to various air control agencies but there were no reports of a missing aircraft. A second group of searchers went into the mountains on November 19 to search for the crash and the origin of the flares. In addition air-sea rescue planes were dispatched from the Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts to aid in the search. After searching for half a day, the search was called off because of the snowy weather.

At 9:45 p.m. that night, residents in Newville and also Boiling Springs, observed another flare coming from the mountains.

On November 20, a couple living near Dillsburg reported seeing two yellow flares coming from the mountains west of town. Note: I cannot find a definite time that the couple witnessed the flares, but newspapers reporting the incident make me believe it was late afternoon, but I cannot determine the exact time of this event.

Around six that evening, flares once again were spotted coming from the same area south of Newville. At 9:30 p.m. that evening, Dale Murphy ordered that all sirens on the fire trucks in the region be blown. Roughly fifteen minutes after the blast from the sirens another flare, arched into the air from the mountains.

Dale Murphy observed that there had to be a meaning behind the flares shooting off at 9:45 p.m. in the evening, but had no reasoning what the timing meant.

On November 21, the searchers once again set out on the task of scouring the mountains. Once again the searchers came up empty. Once again more flares were observed by the residents of the Cumberland Valley. At 9:45 p.m. that evening the first flare of that night was spotted. Unlike the previous ones that glowed yellow, this flare glowed green. That night, between 11:00 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. three more flares were spotted.

The following day, November 22, Dale Murphy called off the search. No evidence of the plane was ever discovered. The searchers came up with no explanations for the flares. That night no flares appeared in the sky.

Later newspapers state that some heard a voice calling from the mountains for “Help!” but I was unable to determine what day(s) this happened or where in the search area this occurred.

With the search called off, the incident became legend.

Exactly what happened that day will remain a mystery. Was it a real crash that somehow was missed? If the crash scene was missed among all the searches, then what happened to the survivors calling for help and setting off the flares? Despite the snow, why didn’t the survivors make their way towards one of the communities?

Another thought that ran through my mind was maybe it was a real plane in distress that was spotted that day. In attempt to not crash it abandoned its load, which caused the explosion that was heard. But then again, maybe the plane exploded in midair. If this was the case surely some wreckage would have been found.

But there is yet another theory. Maybe for an instant the window between dimensions was thin enough to allow a glimpse into another time and place and the witnesses viewed an event that happened in another world.

Whatever happened that day remains a mystery hidden in the mountains of State Game Lands 305. Dale Murphy summed the incident up in a quote given to newspapers on November 19. “It seems to have been a ghost plane. It came out of thin air and vanished into thin air. No one knows where it came from and no one knows where it was going.”

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