Sunday, November 9, 2014

Mysterious Aircraft Wreckage At Spruce Lake

IMGP0824I have spent the last several years researching and searching for historic plane crash sites in the Adirondacks. It’s much harder to find them then people would think. Only in the last couple decades with the proliferation of hand held GPS devices has precise mapping come about and historical references often contain errors in descriptions and locations. One plane I found was not even on the mountain that media and government reports listed for its location. This fall, wreckage from a crash found me; as of yet, no one has been able to explain it.

I get calls from people periodically asking me about crashes in the Adirondacks. I have 225 documented to date, and believe about 50 of these have some wreckage still scattered about the wilds. This fall APA commissioner Dan Wilt, who is also a pilot, contacted me about wreckage at Spruce Lake, not far from where the Northville Placid Trail passes by. He gave me some basic information: the plane was small and had been salvaged, the engine and any landing gear were gone. My visit to the site revealed that this was a fairly old wreck. There was a spruce tree, a large one, growing up through the tail section or horizontal stabilizer. The wings and perhaps much of the plane was likely canvas-covered as only the frame was still present. Unfortunately not a single identifying number could be found.

IMGP0835Looking through my database, I found a crash incident that seemed likely, if not probable for the wreckage, at least in my mind. According to newspaper accounts, on August 27th 1956, First lieutenant Charles W. Allison, a Connecticut National Guard pilot, crawled two miles over 36 hours in the area of “Indian Lake” with a broken leg before being found and rescued by two “lumberjacks.” He was piloting a single engine liaison plane on a return flight from Camp Drum when the plane was caught in a downdraft and crashed. I didn’t have a precise location for this crash yet, but there were details that fit. Spruce Lake is near Perkins Clearing, which would account for what newspapers called “lumberjacks” coming to his aid because this was an area of heavy timbering. I contacted the Connecticut National Guard to get more information. Even though Lt. Allison’s crash was 55 years ago, the crash report is not easy to get. It requires a FOIL request and the report comes with portions redacted. The report I received from the National Guard revealed that the crash location was not Spruce Lake, in fact it was 10 miles away.

Privately owned planes that predate the NTSB and FAA are a challenge to research. Crashes after 1961 can be searched easily and efficiently on the NTSB database. This crash was older than that, and with my number one theory shot down – pardon the bad plane pun – I reached out to all the retired Forest Rangers who had patrolled the area: Tom Eakin, Gary Lee, Greg George, John Seifts, Gerald Husson and Mart Allen. I contacted local historians, commercial float plane operators, anyone I could think of who might know about this plane. No one knew the story of this small aircraft and how it ended up at its final resting place. Finally I hiked into Spruce Lake to look for identifying numbers or anything that would indicate what kind of plane it was. It was easy to find, lying on its side in the boggy spruce forest a few hundred feet from the southern shore line of the lake.

IMGP0828I quickly identified the crash path and the trees that it may have clipped, now stumps, a very large one adjacent to it. It had certainly been salvaged and perhaps even scavenged by those looking for a souvenir. The wings laid detached next to and overtop the fuselage and were constructed from aluminum. Only the wings’ frame remained, indicating they were indeed covered with canvas. A large decomposed log covered portions of one wing and when it was removed some of the fabric which had covered the wing was still intact. Early aircraft had a plasticized lacquer applied to fabric covering the aircraft, commonly called “Aircraft Dope.” Exposed to sunlight and untreated, the fabric breaks down.

A detached piece of aluminum had the words “Reynolds Aluminum” and “3-S ½ H” still legible. On another piece, likely the fuel shutoff, one could still make out the stenciled words “OFF”, “FUEL” and “17 GAL” These were the only words or numbers I could locate. The fuselage was very small and the firewall was naked, detached from whatever engine powered the aircraft. The plywood floor was still visible as was the stick and pedals. The dimensions indicated it was a tandem or single seater. I was only able to find one seat pan. The instrument panel had six cutouts but all the navigation and engine gauges were gone. You could even see the rivet holes under the cut outs where the manufacturer’s name plate was likely attached. Parts of the tail remained and a large spruce tree was certainly keeping part of it from being taken away as it had grown up through the frame. I did not take a core sample from the tree but I estimated it to be 40 years old. Amazingly the stabilizer jack screw assembly still turned!

IMGP0835I took my measurements and photos home and began showing them to pilots and posting pictures on-line. I am not a pilot and know little about plane components. Many people chimed in with thoughts of it being an Aeronca, Piper or Taylorcraft. One person would point to one thing indicating a certain type and just as quickly another person would cue in on another component suggesting an alternate. I did reach a consensus on the type of plane, although it was not a unanimous opinion and certainly not conclusive. Some offered the idea that it was highly modified or a “Frankenplane,” containing components from different plane manufacturers.

Frustrated, I contacted Pete Klein, reporter for the Hamilton County Express who ran a story about the crash. I hoped someone within the readership could solve the mystery for me. The article did provide the attention I hoped. I received several calls and emails of people who had seen the plane over the years but as of yet the story of this wreckage is untold. Perhaps someone reading this can provide me with the answer.


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Scott van Laer has been a forest ranger for 21 years and is currently a delegate for PBA of NYS, the union which represents forest rangers.

24 Responses

  1. Bill Ott says:

    Looking forward to your book. Nice clickable picture. Plane looks a lot younger than the Robinson River wreck, which is mostly below ground now. Did you ever get there or to the F-106 in the Five Ponds?

    • Scott van Laer says:

      I am heading in there next week, as long as there is no snow. The Robinson River crash was a Piper Cub, very similar. That one was underwater for decades which is why I think it is so degraded. I think this is from the 1950’s but I have talked to some people who have been hunting there since there early 50’s and it was there then.

  2. Brian Mann says:

    Great article, Scott. I have a completely unrelated question. What’s that big white bundle on your back in your photo? I hope it’s light-weight!

    –Brian, NCPR

  3. Scott van Laer says:

    It’s a bear canister. The large barrel type. The photo was taken on Marcy.

  4. Adkdave says:

    Hello- As a pilot & mechanic we think the plane is a ’46ish piper j3. Metal spar, no flap, control stick torque tube, small continental oil “kidney” tank, instrument panel shape, yellow boot cowl & elevator jack screw actuator are all clues that point us in that direction.

  5. charles siwik says:

    From the color markings it looks like the old N.Y.State police colors. Blue and Yellow.

  6. Peter Collinge says:

    Scott, here’s a link to a newspaper article about an obscure and less-serious 1951 plane accident that you might be interested in for your book. It happened at the current Massawepie Scout Camps west of Tupper Lake, just after the Scouts bought the property. I’m not sure if you’ve heard about this one.

  7. Ken mihill says:

    How about the plane crash off the whiteface memorial highway

    • Scott van Laer says:

      This one?- On September 28th 1980- A glider crashes on Whiteface, downslope about 1/4 mile from the Lake Placid hairpin turn on the Whiteface memorial highway.

      I am not sure if it is still there. I have not looked for it. I had read reports that is was left then heard that some from ORDA brought it or pieces out.

  8. Gregg D says:

    Do you have this one?

    Years ago, early 1990’s, I used to camp and kayak on Indian Lake. This is near the Moose River Plains / West Canada Lakes area. A few feet into the bog on the west end of the lake are the remains of an aircraft, probably a float plane that didn’t make it. All that’s left is the steel truss fuselage, fabric and some other bits as I recall. Certainly scavenged. Looks old. I’ve always wondered what the story was.

    • Scott van Laer says:

      Are you talking about the one on Cedar Lake? The 2nd lake, about 100 feet or so from shore?

      • Gregg D says:

        Hi Scott,
        Indian Lake is south of Squaw Lake on Otter Brook rd accessed via Moose River Plains. The wreckage is in the bog at the south west end. I remember paddling into the bog a few feet and seeing it there on my left. The road is now blocked before Squaw Lake so you would need to hike in. I don’t have any pictures. A boat is needed unless you prefer to bushwhack over the bog. If you find out anything, I’d like to hear from you.
        43°36’44.9″N 74°45’33.8″W

  9. Dave Waite says:

    Scott, Could be some part of the American Airlines Curtis Condor biplane crashed into Wilder Mountain in 1934? Reading the article I see people from near Piseco snowshoed to rescue the crew, but I have not been able to find Wilder Mountain on maps of that area going back even as far as the 1890’s.

    this is a newspaper article from 1935,17488


    • Bill Ott says:

      Hi Dave,
      At the risk of butting in, I have spent some time researching this wreck and could not find Wilder Mountain either. However, I did find articles describing the crew and passenger rescue, and then the recovery of the plane’s engines. One article describes the rescue party going beyond Long Mountain which is on present day maps. That article also mentions a distance of seven miles to the wreck, which would put it a little south of Long Mtn., measuring from the Piseco Lake area. To find these articles, go to: and then perform a boolean search with: “wilder mountain” and (Filename contains (1935~~1936)). To search this site it is best to read the FAQ tab near the top.

      Aside from the two wrecks being different planes, this surely points to Mr. van Laer’s newly found wreck not having anything to do with the American Airlines wreck you describe. Also I have found that if there is an injury or search related to an aircraft accident in these woods, there will probably be numerous articles about it. I could find no article about wrecks at Spruce Lake, so that plane is probably one that somebody walked away from. I know for sure that I am buying Ranger Scott’s book to learn the answers to these and other questions he will surely answer.

      • scottvanlaer says:

        I was able to figure out where Wilder Mountain is/was. Early snow prevented me from looking for the actual crash site but I will walk in come spring.

        I was able to get some good info on Spruce Lake crash but I currently do not have a definitive answer for date/owner of the plane. I will do a follow up article come spring. I want to go back in after snow melt to look one more time for #’s.

  10. Tim Noonan says:

    Mr. Van Laer,
    I enjoyed reading this article. I grew up in the area and my family has a camp at Spruce Lake and I thought it would be a fun adventure to take the kids exploring and find the crash site. Is the plane on the east or west bank of the lake? And about how far north of the damn is it located? I will also ask my uncles if they know anything about this as the family farm is right near by. Thank you.
    Tim Noonan

  11. Terry Pomichter says:

    Have you ever been to the crash site in Nobelsboro NY of a USAF KC97 that went down in Jan 1959? Had 9 crew members on board no survivors? KC97 is a very large tanker with 4 R4350 engines. Same size as a B29 superfortress. I’ve been to the site 3 times. Its back in off of Rt8 about 5 miles. The plane took off from westover field in Mass in route to Griffis AFB in Rome. Flying at nite in a bad snow storm and hit the top of shanty mountain. At the old home I grew up in has the lavatory door latch on our cellar door from that wreckage.

  12. Mike Clark says:

    Hello. I occasionally get sucked into reading about these crash sites, both in the Catskills and Adirondacks. I have seen about 6 myself.

    One incident that keeps popping into my head, and I am curious if it is on your radar is related to the Blue Ridge C-47 wreck near Lewey Lake. It seems, from what I read, that the C-47 was found about a year after it crashed by a pilot who was searching for a plane that had just recently been lost. I believe it was flying to Lake Placed from Lowville. I believe it was not located at the time and I am wondering if perhaps has been located and identified.

    Cheers, Mike

    • scottvanlaer says:

      Yes that was a C-46 and it is, in my opinion the most significant archeological site in the ADK of a plane crash. The fuselage has started to collapse on it self but the entire plane is there. A fair amount of people do bushwack to the site.

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