54 Days of Survival in the Sierra Nevada Backcountry: The Story of Lieutenant David Steeves

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An artists portrayal of Lt. Steeves in his sierra nevada plane crash

by Treas Manning

In the 1950s, the Cold War escalated; the KGB had just been established, and the Russians were gearing up to launch the Sputnik into orbit. Vietnam was split at the 17th parallel, and McCarthy’s witch hunt had raised the ardor to a fevered pitch.

America was engaged in a race of military might, and superpower status came with a focus on state-of-the-art aircraft with superior handling and missile firing accuracy. Readiness was paramount, and Lockheed’s T-33 was a front-line training jet for advanced-level Air Force pilots. Only a few trusted high-level men were engaged in the secrecy of aircraft training, testing, and development.

The T-33 prototype plate Lt. Steeves was flying
The T-33 prototype plane Lt. Steeves was flying.

May 9th, 1957, one of those young top guns, 23-year-old David Arthur Steeves, took off on a solo flight from Hamilton Air Force Base to Craig Air Force Base near Selma, California. The flight route took the young pilot over the Sierra Nevada near the rugged backcountry of Kings Canyon National Park. A routine flight plan was filed, nothing out of the ordinary except the young pilot and his top-level aircraft disappeared from radar and never landed at the central valley Air Force base. A search and rescue mission was launched but failed to find any trace of the pilot or airplane. First Lieutenant Steeves was declared dead, and a death certificate was mailed to his family.

Fifty-four days after his disappearance, a full-bearded, battered, and half-starved man in an Air Force flight suit aimlessly limped into a hiker’s camp. He gave his name as Lieutenant Steeves and told his story of survival.

An explosion in the cockpit had left him unconscious and his jet spiraling out of control. He slowly regained consciousness and instinctively fought to control the spin. The aircraft leveled out but was filling with smoke. He was forced to eject and deploy his parachute, dropping into the most mountainous backcountry of the Sierra Nevada. Taking a hard landing, both ankles badly sprained, he found himself wearing only a lightweight summer flight suit.

He had gone two weeks without food, wandering, trying to navigate his way out of the mountains. About to cede to his dismal situation, he came across a ranger’s cabin, finding cans of ham and beans, fish hooks, and line. His hope of survival renewed, he continued his tramp out of the mountains. In May, the high country of the Sierra, with elevations well over 11,000 feet, is still covered with snow; rivers and streams are often a torrent and dangerous to cross.

A Bearded Lieutenant Steeves after his plance crash
Lieutenant David Arthur Steeves

The 23-year-old was at first greeted as a hero, and his struggle was seemingly impossible to persevere. The Saturday Evening Post offered Steeves $10,000 for an exclusive cover story of his ordeal.

Air Force superiors took his testimony and laid out a search for his aircraft. Months of searching and reviewing his story came up empty; not a piece of the wreckage of the top-level aircraft was found. Rumors and suspicion were mounting; how did he survive without food for two weeks, let alone find the strength to continue walking and stumble onto a cabin with stores of food. Fifty-four days and he managed to climb his way to safety, with no trace of the crash sight? Lieutenant David Steeves’ heroic story seemed unlikely. The magazine pulled back on their offer claiming discrepancies in his story, and their accusations were never spelled out.

A more plausible story was being pieced together by the Air Force. A traitorous pilot flies his military jet deep into Mexico, hands it over to the Russians for payment into a foreign bank account. He is then flown back over the Sierra Nevada and dropped into the mountains. Food was planted at the ranger’s cabin along with a preplanned route back to civilization. A weary pilot would then tell his well-rehearsed story, and no one would be the wiser.

With a lack of hard evidence, formal charges were never filed. Still, rumors and suspicion would plague his military career until 1st Lieutenant David Steeves asked his superiors for a full discharge from the Air Force. Steeves’ civilian life brought divorce and the loss of custody of his young daughter, and he lost the support of most of his friends. He managed to find work as a commercial pilot and was involved in designing parachute planes. Driven by the cloud of conspiracy hanging over his head, he would spend the rest of his life combing the Sierra from a rented plane, hoping that the discovery of the wreckage would clear his name.

In 1965, civilian David Steeves died in a plane crash. Twelve years later, a group of Boy Scouts, while backpacking in Kings Canyon, would discover a large piece of the cockpit from an Air Force jet in a shallow alpine lake. The serial number was clearly present and matched with 1st Lieutenant Steeves’ missing Lockheed T-33.

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5 thoughts on “54 Days of Survival in the Sierra Nevada Backcountry: The Story of Lieutenant David Steeves

  1. He took investigators to the site of a campfire he built on top of many feet of snow. The ashes and burnt wood were all neatly togethre on the ground after dropping through ten feet of snow melt–not scattered at all. John Piowaty, former Air Force Survival Instructor Stead AFB NV 1954-6

  2. I don’t know what this article means by “A more plausible story was being pieced together by the Air Force.” It’s true the air force had problems with his story at times but it was all BS. I was a ranger in the area for decades and have read his later testimony and interviews. It’s all internally consistent with the terrain, travel times, and conditions as he would have found and experienced them. Also not mentioned is a ranger finding his parachute and helmet in Dusy Basin, Kings Canyon NP in terrain as he described his camp when he landed there. It’s a great story and he’s deserving of admiration for surviving 54 days in the backcountry of Kings Canyon NP.

  3. According to Wikipedia Craig AFB is near Selma, Alabama not Selma CA
    Per Wikipedia on him “Lieutenant Steeves had been ordered to fly his jet on a training flight from Hamilton Air Force Base near San Francisco, California to Craig Air Force Base near Selma, Alabama on May 9, 1957.[1] Something went wrong with the jet and Steeves was forced to eject and parachute out, landing in Dusy Basin, Kings Canyon National Park,” “

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