An Air Force investigation is standard operating procedure after any incident, especially when it involves the loss of an aircraft and near-loss of pilot. Later that summer, in the weeks after Lieutenant David Steeves found his way out of the Kings Canyon wilderness, he showed officials where he had dug his snow cave in Dusy Basin – although the snow cave had melted away. In fact, much of the terrain was difficult for him to recognize without snow and he was unable to retrace his route to the cabin. National Park Service Rangers were able to confirm that there had been someone staying at the cabin, consuming ham and beans, fish and venison: an important but ignored point in the young pilot’s future. The staight-line distance Steeves crawled from snow cave to cabin was determined to be 9.72 miles, and from cabin to campground where he encountered the horsemen was 8.08 miles. However, because of the rugged terrain, uphill, downhill, around mountains, through valleys, and generally avoiding obstacles, park rangers estimate he may have traveled twice those distances or more.
At the campground park ranger’s office where he waited for an Air Force car to pick him up, Steeves gave the first of many press interviews. Answering endless questions for hours as best he could exhausted him. Finally, the staff car arrived to take him to Castle Air Force Base, where he could get all the rest and food he wanted. He’d lost at least 40 pounds during his ordeal. The flight suit – his only clothing for most of two months – hung on him like a sack. Castle AFB provided a new uniform and everything else he needed during his short stay. For some reason, they allowed him to keep his beard for awhile and didn’t insist on a much needed haircut, judging by the pictures. It’s possible that Air Force officials saw Steeves as a great public relations story that they wanted the beard and hair to play up. The press had made the young Lieutenant a national hero overnight, so it makes sense that the Air Force would want to capitalize on that image.
After an initial military debriefing, Steeves was granted leave to go see his wife, daughter, and parents in Connecticut. Newshounds were as interested in Steeves’ family’s stories as they were in his. It was an American story about a rugged American hero, his beautiful wife and daughter, and Mom and Pop. There was probably some apple pie in there somewhere too, and the press and the public ate it up. The Saturday Evening Post offered Steeves ten grand and a contract for his story. A book and movie deal were discussed. The pilot with a will to live and a wife and daughter to live for was front page news and a regular topic of discussion all across the nation. Everyone knew his name and face, and we were all very proud of Steeves for about six weeks.
Everything changed, suddenly, when an editor at the Saturday Evening Post, himself a war veteran and military history author, started questioning Steeves story, claiming inconsistencies, without saying publicly what the inconsistencies were. The Post cancelled the $10K conract, and did so publicly, apparently believing they’d been had. Suspicion fell on Steeves and his story. Instead of sniffing out the facts, the national press smelled blood and turned on him. They found out that Steeves and Rita had had marital difficulties prior to his disappearance, and that Rita was thinking of leaving him. Yes, she was thrilled that he was alive and she was no longer a widow, but the infidelity he’d confessed to her prior to his untimely ‘death’ was hard to deal with. It was a breach of trust. He’d promised her he would break off the affair before his last trip to California, and he hadn’t done it. Now she didn’t know what to do. Their lives and marriage were in the national spotlight, making a difficult situation much more so.
Steeves’ Jaguar sports car was another red flag for reporters. How could a young officer with a family afford a car like this? Conspiracy theories began circulating that tried to explain the affair, the expensive car, the need a young officer might have for money, and what may have happened to the T-33, which was never found. One theory said he sold it to the Soviets, another that he flew it to Mexico and sold it to some other party. In any case, he then faked bailing out over the Sierras and his entire survival saga.
The idea that the Soviets would pay for a ten year old design and a training aircraft is ludicrous, especially when we knew at the time that they’d captured a cutting edge fighter, a downed but intact F-86 Sabre, in Korea just a few years earlier. As far as flying the T-33 to Mexico and faking his survival, that was bunk too, but proven too late for Steeves.
There doesn’t seem to be any documentation that the Air Force, specifically the 41st Air Rescue Squadron, ever followed up by visiting those two new crash sites spotted from the air. They had attempted to reach them but were blocked by bad weather and rough terrain. After the Air Force prematurely declared Steeves dead, they may have decided there was no point, or perhaps budget constraints were a consideration. In any case, it appears someone had poor judgement and made a bad decision. If one of those wrecks had turned out to be the missing T-33, Steeves’ life would not have been destroyed by a national press more interested in selling news than finding the truth.
The Air Force did come up with a plausible theory as to what caused the incident. The T-33 had a fuel tank directly behind the cockpit, and fuel fumes were known to leak into the cockpit, at least in some documented cases, although it’s not clear if any T-33 was ever lost due to this cause. If fuel vapors were present in Steeves’ cockpit, they may have ignited by a spark when he flipped a switch, such as when turning on the autopilot, resulting in a low-pressure explosion knocking him unconscious.
Now enduring weeks and months of deep suspicion from people who just a little while ago were treating him like a king was unbearable. Steeves sought permission to resign from active Air Force duty, which under the circumstances was granted. Officially, Air Force investigators cleared him of any fault or wrong doing, but unofficially, some of his colleagues and superiors appeared to doubt him. The fifties was an era of Cold War paranoia, through and through.
Rita had difficulty as well. Being the hero’s loving wife wasn’t so bad, but being cast as a traitor’s spouse in a troubled marriage was just awful. It may have helped her to ultimately decide to leave him. By the end of the year they had separated, and shortly divorced. She took their daughter and eventually remarried. Steeves lamented to the press, that he’d lost the most important thing in his life. Thoughts of getting home to Rita and their daughter had kept him going, kept him alive when he might have perished.
Years later, the inconsistencies cited by the Saturday Evening Post were investigated and found to be baseless. The Post had to honor the contract, paying Steeves $10K by court order. He relocated to Fresno, California, in order to spend his free time searching the nearby Sierra Nevada for his missing plane and clear his name, at least in the eyes of the public. He found work, and then started an aviation-related business. Eventually he remarried.
The tragic tale of a flawed hero ended in 1965. David Steeves (1934-1965) was in Utah, demonstrating an aircraft to a potential buyer when it crashed, killing them both. In 1977, a troop of Boy Scouts hiking near Dusy Basin found the canopy from Steeves’ missing aircraft. The serial number matched his T-33, proving his story was absolutely true.