On 11 March 1949 two Naval Aviators took off at 10:05AM from the Sand Point Naval Air Station in Seattle, a location now called now Magnuson Park, for what should have been a two-hour flight in an SNJ trainer. Lt. (j.g.) Benjamin Vreeland and Ensign Gaston Mayes never returned. In the 1950s and early 1960s, after items were found in and around Black Lake, a few air miles from the town of Snoqualmie, WA, it was believed the plane disintegrated on impact, with the bulk of the plane resting from 2-10 feet in the muddy bottom. For over 70 years, the U.S. Navy never struck the plane from their missing list and never officially notified families of the plane potentially being in the lake. Finally, on 4 December 2020 the Navy Underwater History and Heritage Command sent letters out to family members stating they believe the SNJ-5 Texan remains rest in the silty bottom of the lake. In May 2021, American Legion Post 79 of Snoqualmie installed a permanent 3-ton Rock Memorial at the lake, but low clouds and fog precluded a memorial flyover.
In October 2021, after a long, hot dry summer in the Great Northwest, I received an e-mail from Shawn Murphy, who had been involved in the research on the SNJ crash, that family members of the lost pilots would again be visiting the area in the November timeframe, near the Veterans Day weekend. Since Shawn knew I was the Operations Officer for the Cascade Warbirds, he asked if any warbird pilots might be available for another attempt at a memorial veteran flyby. As November approached and our atmospheric rivers of rain and low clouds began returning, I was able to get two thumbs up from potential fliers, John 'Smokey' Johnson and Eric 'Beaker' Olson. Smokey's SNJ-5 would be a perfect candidate, since it was the same make and model as the lost aircraft in 1949.
The week before the planned flight, we experienced a solid stretch of rain, wind and low clouds, but held out hope for a break in the weather on Saturday. The morning initially dawned with generally VFR to marginally VFR conditions, but quickly degraded to low clouds and fog due to all the recent moisture. I drove instead of flying from Renton to Paine Field due to the fog, and met Beaker and his Navion, where we scoped out the weather as local observers to allow Smokey to sneak in from Diamond Point in his SNJ. Just as timing was getting critical, to allow an overflight with family members and observers still on the ground at Black Lake, the weather cleared sufficiently for Smokey to land at Paine Field in his SNJ for fuel and a briefing. Since I had flown over the hard-to-find small Black Lake in the past, I acted as the flight navigator in Smokey's SNJ back seat, while Dan Shoemaker joined Beaker in the Navion for photo opportunities.
We quickly blasted off as a two-ship from Paine Field's runway 16L, and headed directly to Fall City and Snoqualmie Falls to establish our run-in heading. The terrain rises quickly to the east into the Cascade foothills, and we threaded our way around hills and shark-finned ridges, followed the North Fork of the Snoqualmie River, then turned northwest for our passes over the lake. Our first pass led us too far to the west, but we quickly circled and found the lake using GPS coordinates. The weather held off for a number of low passes, then a close formation fan break/missing man to the west, then a final solo salute in the SNJ to the family on the ground and the memory of the lost aviators.
Once we returned for an overhead break to Paine Field's runway 16R, we received a call from the team on the ground at Black Lake, who expressed their appreciation and noted that the family 'felt chills' as we flew by. Mission accomplished!