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Alumni Spotlight: Chris McNaughton `14

Chris McNaughtonChris McNaughton wanted to be a pilot ever since he was a little kid. “I loved planes and knew I wanted to fly them someday.” Now a pilot who flies Boeing 767 and 777s for a commercial airline, he lives his dream, which lets him pursue his passion for history and exploration in a truly honorable way: McNaughton is a member of Project Recover, a collaborative effort to locate, identify and ultimately return the remains of Americans missing in action since World War II.

After graduating from Prep in 2014, McNaughton attended flight school at Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake. His first job as a pilot landed him with a company that operates in the Northern Mariana Islands in the Federated States of Micronesia, north of Guam. Piloting a Piper Cherokee Six – a light aircraft with just 6 seats – he transported cargo, ran air ambulance flights, and passengers, including the governor. When a typhoon ravaged the islands, the airline’s relief flights were critical. “The day after the storm, I worked 22 hours. We were the lifeblood of those islands. You had 55,000 people relying on you.”

McNaughton SCUBA divingIt was fortuitous then that through a connection with his mother, he learned of Project Recover, whose primary searches for the wreckages of U.S. military planes take place in and around those islands that were for a time the center of the Pacific Theater in the war. Project Recover estimates 200 U.S. aircraft were shot down inside the island of Palau’s barrier reef. Four dozen planes and 70 to 80 airmen have never been recovered. The organization is small – 30 members – and has a rigorous interviewing and onboarding process for new members. “They want to make sure that if you’re spending time in the jungle for days, you’re going to get along with them.” McNaughton is the youngest member “by many years.”

As a commercial pilot for Omnia, McNaughton is able to “jumpseat” and travel on short notice to the far reaches of the globe. Once on the ground, his role as a Project Recover team member includes conducting interviews with locals to document their oral accounts of crashes, exploring off the beaten path through dense, untamed jungle, and scuba diving to search for clues to aircraft that went down nearly 80 years ago.

Movie posterMcNaughton has cultivated his interest in filmmaking during his dives and other explorations. As an independent filmmaker, he has worked on two films and has trekked in the Andes to conduct interviews and film footage at the site of the 1972 crash of the plane carrying the Uruguayan rugby team. Some of the footage will be part of the forthcoming movie “Society of the Snow.” Today, McNaughton still remembers the support of teachers, namely Pat Bulger, who fueled his interest in filmmaking, and Theology teacher Jim Pearson, who encouraged him to be open to different thought processes in his religion class. “It made you more open-minded about different religions around the world.”

To learn more about Project Recover, watch the documentary film, “To What Remains,” now streaming on Amazon Prime.