In March 2017 a light aircraft crashed near Manitouwadge, Ontario, a township more than 200 miles from Thunder Bay in Canada. However, when rescuers approached the wreckage, something curious struck them. There was no sign of a pilot – no body would be found in or in the vicinity of the plane.
Even more curiously, although snow covered the ground, there were no footprints nearby. Whoever had flown the plane had vanished without a trace. Moreover, no sign of the man who had rented the aircraft could be found in the months that followed. Indeed, his fate remained a mystery, leaving just the wreckage.
Although the authorities were able to trace who the pilot had been, a man later named as PhD student Xin Rong, this didn’t help locate him. Eventually, six months after the wreck’s discovery, his wife, Surong Ruan, petitioned a Michigan court to provide a declaration that he was dead.
Then a few weeks after Ruan had filed, a Washtenaw County judge declared Rong dead, adding that although the student’s body had not turned up, there could be little doubt about his fate. The judge said that the young man had “no chance of being alive.” But the question remains – what happened to him?
Rong, who was 27 when he disappeared, had originated from the Chinese city of Changchun. He had at some point left that metropolis in China’s northeast to come to the United States. His parents still lived in the east Asian country, but it seemed – with a wife in San Francisco – that he had settled in the U.S.
Meanwhile, it seems that Rong had been some sort of computer whiz. He’d been studying for his doctorate at University of Michigan, looking at human-computer interaction, natural language processing and artificial intelligence. The school, in Ann Arbor, MI, is the oldest in the state, having existed when it was still a territory.
Having graduated from Beijing’s elite Tsinghua University in 2011, Rong had been studying in Michigan for nearly six years. He had also taken employment opportunities with tech giants Google and Microsoft, perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who had focused on “text mining” and “language networks.”
Meanwhile, on top of his interest in computing, Rong had less earthbound ambitions too. Apparently, he cherished a hope that he might one day contribute to the field of aviation safety. Certainly, he had already been engaged in the world of air travel, so his movements on the day of his disappearance weren’t at all strange.
Indeed, the student had been a certified pilot – and was a member of the local flying club, the Michigan Flyers. So it was probably not particularly noteworthy at first that he went to the Ann Arbor Airport on March 15, 2017, and rented a Cessna 172 light airplane.
This was in fact how the crashed plane was traced back to Rong. The Canadian Transportation Safety Board (TSB) proved able to find its owner through its registration number. And indeed the wrecked aircraft was the same Cessna Skyhawk 172P that Rong had rented at the Michigan airport on that fateful day.
The Cessna 172 has been an extremely popular aircraft since first going airborne in 1955. And with at least 44,000 172s constructed, more than any other make of aircraft, it’s pretty much the world’s number one. The model Rong rented, the 172P, came into production in 1981, with an improved engine that proved more reliable than the one in its predecessor.
It was in a Cessna 172 that Robert Timm and John Cook broke the flight endurance world record in 1958. Taking off from McCarran Airfield in Las Vegas, Nevada, they stayed aloft for nearly 65 days. The pilots took food aboard using a bucket and refueled the plane using intricate maneuvers between the Cessna and a chase car on a desert road.
Meanwhile, this particular Cessna Skyhawk had belonged to the Michigan Flyers club. And it had a flight plan logged for March 15. However, it didn’t suggest any intention to visit Canada. Instead, the plan stated an intention for the Cessna to visit Harbour Springs, another city in Michigan, about a couple of hours’ flight away.
And Rong had been a keen flyer with the Michigan Flyers club. Its vice president, Andy Fowler, told the Daily Mail in September 2017, “[He] was [a] beloved member of our club. He was not a student pilot – he was fully qualified to fly our planes.” Furthermore, the postgrad student’s personal website confirms the same thing.
On top of that, Rong had written on his website of his love for flying. He wrote, “I love taking friends up for sightseeing flights. I have flown a number of Detroit River tours, San Francisco Bay tours, and [Puget] Sound tours.” So he was no stranger to taking one of the club’s Cessna’s aloft.
For its part, the Michigan Flyers club has been at Ann Arbor airport since 1969. Although it provides aircraft for rent and training in flying them, it doesn’t look to make a profit, so it can maintain an emphasis on affordability. Furthermore, its focus is on safety and education. And along with the university flying club, it also opens its doors to the public.
The club actually has roots in the 1920s, having taken part in the first get-together of the National Intercollegiate Flying Association that decade. However, today’s operation owes its existence to aerospace engineering students. It now keeps ten Cessna planes in top condition, ready for its members to take on flights.
So at some point the club noticed that the Cessna that Rong had rented had not come back – and it got in touch with the authorities. Meanwhile, the club’s airplane was lying in some woods near Manitouwadge, Ontario. Somehow, instead of visiting Harbour Springs, the plane had crossed Lake Superior and ended up in a rural area in Canada.
After being notified of the crash the next day, the Canadian authorities sent a Hercules to look for the plane. Eventually, a couple of search and rescue personnel went to the site by air to try to gather information. But there was very little to be found – Rong was nowhere to be seen.
Meanwhile, though Rong seemed to have vanished, it was clear that he had been in the plane. And later, his wife would tell the judge in her probate filing that some of his things had been in the craft. Among the items discovered were his wallet and his iPad – but sadly these did not provide clues to his disappearance.
Back in the States, the University of Michigan Police Department had opened a probe into Rong’s disappearance. In connection with that, it listed him as a missing person. But it didn’t take long before the university cops had started to come to an ominous conclusion about the young computing student’s fate.
Then a week after the crash, the authorities called off the search. And the university police did not believe Rong would ever be found alive. A press release that Canadian newspaper The Chronicle Journal referenced said, “Police have reasons to believe his actions likely were an act of self-harm.”
However, the police weren’t willing to expand on the reasons that they had for coming to that conclusion. In the same release, the police explained, “Out of respect for his family, classmates and colleagues, we won’t have additional information to release.” And by September 2017, the Daily Mail confirmed that the Ontario police had the same idea about Rong’s suicide.
Indeed, the Daily Mail reported that a spokesperson for the Ontario police had earlier in 2017 expressed why he thought Rong had not been found with the plane. Sergeant Peter Leon said that it didn’t seem likely that he had been in the Cessna when it crashed. And he added that there had been nothing that would indicate that Rong was alive.
But it wasn’t clear where Rong’s body might be, if he had jumped from the plane. The university police confirmed that they had searched in the area of Petoskey, in northern Michigan, because that had been the place Rong’s cellphone provider had last received a ping from his phone. But that search wasn’t fruitful.
The Ontario police wouldn’t say in September 2017 whether the phone had pinged a tower in Canada. At that time at least, they had every intention of holding their investigation open until they knew where Rong was. However, it didn’t seem at all likely that they would find him alive.
As Sgt. Leon pointed out to Canadian newspaper the Toronto Star in March 2017, the police had no idea where Rong might be. He said, “The feeling right now is at some point during the flight, the pilot more than likely left the confines of that aircraft… It is entirely possible that the pilot could have exited the plane at any point.”
And the implications of leaving the aircraft were clear. A report from Transport Canada said, “[The] pilot was not a parachutist or does not own a parachute.” Meanwhile, TSB senior investigator Peter Rowntree confirmed that the type of Cessna involved in the crash would not have been equipped with parachutes by design.
Furthermore, nothing in the plane could help solve the mystery. Although the aircraft had hit some trees on the way down, its cockpit was pretty much undamaged. This type of plane doesn’t have a black box or any way in and out except through the doors on either side of the cabin.
So Rowntree, who had been sent in by helicopter to examine the scene of the crash, was forced to conclude that it was “still a mystery” how and when Rong had managed to leave the plane. And he was quite sure the Chinese student would have had to exit it at some point during the journey.
That’s because a Cessna cannot take off under autopilot, unlike some bigger aircraft. So there would have had to be a pilot at the controls when it left Ann Arbor airport. And according to Wawa-news.com, media sources suggest that the plane had been left on autopilot to fly until it had run out of gas, when it would simply fall from the sky.
Certainly, the crash site seems to fit this theory well. A Cessna of this type can fly about 440 nautical miles, and the town of Marathon, about 32 nautical miles from where the wreckage was found, is 407 nautical miles from Ann Arbor. The plane didn’t land anywhere en route, so it seems that Rong must have jumped.
Investigating the likelihood of Rong’s jumping out of the plane, Wawa-news.com spoke to a couple pilots. And they confirmed that you can leave a Cessna while it’s under autopilot. Furthermore, the website speculated that it wouldn’t be impossible for Rong to have survived without a parachute, had he jumped from low enough to the ground. Indeed, BASE jumpers have leaped from up to 1,500 feet up in competitions.
Meanwhile, one person who was quite certain that Rong had committed suicide was his wife, Surong Ruan. Asking for him to be certified dead, she told the court, “All the evidence indicates [that] the aircraft was operating normally and crashed because it ran out of fuel. And at some point prior to the crash, the pilot exited the aircraft. As ground searches were negative, no parachute or life vests on the plane and the aircraft was cruising at around 9,000 feet altitude, I believe Xin Rong exited the aircraft and didn’t have a chance of being alive.”
For her part, Ruan is also a something of an expert in computing. Indeed, she works in product design for a virtual reality firm in San Francisco, California. She too attended Tsinghua University and graduated at the same time as Rong. After that, she gained a master’s degree at Michigan, specializing in human-computer interaction.
Ruan also said that she is dealing with insurance companies and with Rong’s property. She had even had to field questions from the Michigan Flyers club. Early in October 2017 the judge agreed with her – and the story of Xin Rong’s life and potential death was officially brought to a close.
It’s not unheard of for people to choose aircraft as their means of committing suicide. Furthermore, Cessnas have been used to end a person’s life. In January 2002 Charles J. Bishop, then a high-school student, plowed a stolen Cessna 172 – the same plane as Rong had flown on his last journey – into the Bank of America Tower in Tampa, Florida.
Meanwhile, in Utah, Duane Youd perished after intentionally crashing a Cessna into his own home in August 2018. A few days later, Richard Russell, an aircraft mechanic, plunged a stolen plane into Puget Sound near Seattle, Washington, killing himself.
Elsewhere, in 2016 Jordanian student Feras Freitekh joined the unhappy roll of men committing suicide by light plane. After an argument with the instructor who was in the Piper PA-34 Seneca with him, he flew into a utility pole in East Hartford, Connecticut. Incredibly, the instructor survived to tell investigators what had happened.
So in all those cases, there’s little or no doubt about what happened. But in Rong’s case, it’s a little more difficult to be sure. And TSB investigator Rowntree told The Chronicle Journal in 2017 that it was a headscratcher. He said, “Certainly, it’s unusual. Normally when you go to a crash site, there is someone there.”