Tuesday, July 21, 2015

On The Hunt For Adirondack Aircraft Wreckage

Van_Laer_Navy-600x604As I made my way up Seward Mountain with Scott Van Laer last October, trying to find the wreckage of a Piper Cherokee that slammed into the peak in 1970, I kept thinking that the search would go pretty quickly. After all, a plane, even a single-engine model like the Cherokee, is big. It does not belong in the forest. How could we not find it?

Van Laer was pretty confident in our chances, too. He’s done this before, having tracked down about twenty of these wrecks throughout the Adirondacks, and is writing a guidebook for others who want to make their own way to the sites.

If there’s a dean of Adirondack plane wrecks, Van Laer is it – in the wreck-chasing community (there is one), he’s a regular presence on message boards and is widely recognized as “one of the foremost experts in Adirondack crashes,” as Aviation Week’s senior avionics and safety editor described him on a blog last year.

Van Laer had a sketchy description of the wreck’s location from somebody who had seen it a decade ago: a couple of hundred feet beneath Seward’s 4,347-foot summit, adjacent to an old herd path that had since grown in and below a rock formation that was described in accident reports as the “Chinese Wall.”

There’s a small cliff that runs along the summit ridge that we figured must be the Wall, so we started bushwhacking down a steep slope blanketed with spruce and started looking. Every now and then the forest thinned, but in a lot of places it was hard to see far past the next tree. It only took a few minutes of hunting for me to realize: The plane may be big. But the mountain is a lot bigger. How could we possibly find this thing?

For Van Laer, a Forest Ranger with the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, wreck chasing is a hobby he can apply to his job. “I’ve learned things and how I’d respond to future ones by what is happening in the past,” he said. “Mistakes that they made, things they did right, things I would do again. Again, I would delve into it exactly as the response was. How was it found, how was the recovery?”

On Seward, Van Laer approached the search much as he would if the plane had just crashed. He established a grid, and we marched along it, back and forth, to canvas a section of forest. It was sweaty, scratchy, and exhausting work. We poked around for an hour or two, covering about three hundred vertical feet, but eventually we threw in the towel so we could make it back to the trailhead before dusk.

It was Van Laer’s second trip up Seward to find the plane. He’ll need a third. And while he was pretty convinced he was going to find it that day in October, he’s also well aware of the difficulties of finding these lonely wrecks.

Forestport_wreckage-600x403“They’ve been there a long time so they’ve got vegetation growing up around it,” he said. “It’s very hard to find anything that’s not moving. So it’s not leaving down a sign, like a person; if I’m looking for a person walking through the woods, I can find their sign without finding them and that would lead me to them. I can yell for them, and they may yell back. Even if they’re deceased, they make a smell; it’s a way of finding people. This has none of those things, so it’s much more difficult.”

Van Laer, who isn’t a pilot, got involved with the wrecks as part of his job, when he was assigned to update a list of Adirondack plane crashes kept by DEC. The agency keeps the list so that in case somebody reports finding wreckage, dispatchers can tell whether they’re dealing with an unreported crash or an accident they already knew about. (The wreckage of aluminum planes can look remarkably fresh even after decades in the woods.)

But the wrecks on the list didn’t have GPS coordinates, as most were found long before GPS devices existed, so Van Laer started tracking down wreckage to get exact locations on the record. He figures there are about fifty crashes with significant wreckage left that should be on DEC’s list; he’s been to about twenty.

There have been many more crashes than that, though – probably around 250. For those, getting the back stories has become a hobby for Van Laer, who haunts message boards and seeks decades-old records from state and federal authorities. “First it started out as a work project, then I wanted to know the story behind the plane,” Van Laer said. “Who was on it, did anybody survive, what was their story, and what was the story for the search?”

Airplanes have been crashing in the Adirondacks for as long as they’ve been flying here. The first plane in the Park arrived in June 1912, shipped by rail to Raquette Lake by Collier’s Weekly heir Robert J. Collier. That Curtiss-Wright biplane also has the ignominious distinction of being the first plane to crash in the Adirondacks: it went into Raquette Lake a month later, tumbling forty feet from the sky. Nobody was hurt, and the plane was recovered, but it was packed into a railcar again in short order and sent back south.

It can be tough flying inside the Blue Line, Van Laer says. There are mountains in the flight path, so navigation is critical, and those mountain slopes produce downdrafts, which can be trouble for small planes. Floatplanes face additional challenges, such as landing on a liquid surface that isn’t always glassy smooth.

IMGP0824Some Adirondack wrecks, like the B-47 bomber that slammed into Wright Peak in 1962, killing four, are well known. Others are barely remembered. Now that his exploits are becoming known more widely, people are coming forward to tell Van Laer of crashes that, as far as he can tell, have no paper trail at all.

All have a story, though, and seeing the wrecks in person brings them into stark relief. In May, Van Laer led a group of three into the woods near Forestport to track down the wreckage of a plane piloted by Lieutenant Robert L. Hollis, a U.S. Navy pilot who died in a September 1945 crash.

He was on leave from his base in North Carolina, coming home to Oneida to surprise his parents on their thirty-second wedding anniversary, when he radioed that he was having engine trouble over the Catskills. He kept flying. Clouds thickened. His Corsair F4U made it to the southern edge of the Adirondacks, where he crashed in woods so remote that the wreck went undiscovered until a group of hunters stumbled across it thirteen months later.

“This accident could have been avoided had pilot turned back when bad weather appeared,” noted the crash report, black and white and bloodless.

It’s one thing to feel badly for Hollis, and his rotten luck, by reading an accident report. But it’s another entirely to actually see the crash site, to ford a river, and bushwhack through one and a half miles of forest and get to the lonely spot where the wreckage of the World War II-era fighter plane still lies, littering hundreds of square feet of forest floor with motors and valves and crumpled aluminum and rusted steel and innumerable other parts.

Then, and only then, can you really understand just how badly it ended for Lt. Hollis.

“It’s like a gravesite,” said a humbled Bob Hutchins, a carpenter from Boonville who came on the hike. Hutchins, an Adirondack Forty-Sixer, has seen a lot in the mountains, but this was completely different. “[To be here] just before Memorial Day, like this – it’s quite a thing to see.”

Van Laer acknowledges that some view the quest as macabre. “Some people don’t like this at all,” he said. In some cases, though, he’s able to help families affected by these crashes to gain closure by visiting the sites and filling in the picture of what’s often a murky memory.

As Van Laer looks for the sites, he often seeks out surviving relatives to see if they have any interest in visiting the wrecks. Sometimes they don’t respond; other times, they do. Last summer, he escorted the son of a pilot who survived a 1969 crash near Mount Marshall to the plane.

And sometimes, he helps families resolve mysteries that have dogged them for years.

In 1971, a corporate jet crashed into Lake Champlain but was never found. Five people were on board. While the search ended in 1973, the pilot’s family never stopped wondering what happened: Barbara Nikitas, whose uncle was the pilot of that plane, said that her sister searched Google every day for tidbits about the accident, looking for any kind of clue.

After a Malaysia Airlines flight disappeared over the South Pacific last year, memories of that Champlain crash were rekindled. Nikitas logged on to an online forum with a question. Van Laer responded with a question of his own: was her uncle the pilot, George Nikita (who spelled his surname differently), or the co-pilot, Don Meyer?

The family was amazed to find people were still discussing the case. “We were absolutely stunned,” Nikitas said. “And we were humbled by it. Because who are we? We are not the Malaysian jet. It was a corporate jet. And there were five men on board.”

She credited Van Laer with helping to muster state and volunteer resources in New York and Vermont to reopen the search last summer. Though searchers scoured the lake bottom using both robots and a manned mini-submarine, nothing was found. The search is expected to resume this summer, and Nikitas and other family members will converge on the lake again as the rescuers head into the water.

“Their goal is to help us find peace and closure,” she said. “For Scott, it’s not just about the wreck.”

She’s unstinting in her gratitude for Van Laer, whom she said has been “tireless” in his efforts. “I think of Scott now as family,” she said. “We want to spend Thanksgiving [with him]. That’s how my family thinks of him.”

Van Laer, who has participated in countless searches for lost hikers, knows that all don’t end well. But it’s important that they end. “I’ve seen what families go through when they don’t have closure,” Van Laer said. “It motivates me more to find them. Because I can see the damage that not getting closure does to a family.”

Van Laer will be back on Champlain this summer, looking for the wreck. He’ll also be up on Seward again, too.

“When I go back on Seward, I’m going back with a sleeping bag,” he said. “And I’m not coming down until I run out of food or I find it.”

Photos: Above, Scott Van Laer grapples with a piece of a Navy plane that crashed in 1945 (Photo by Kenneth Aaron); Middle, wreckage from the 1945 crash can still be found in the woods near Forestport (Kenneth Aaron photo); and below, wreckage from an unknown aircraft near Spruce Lake (photo provided by Scott van Laer).

This story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here.

Related Stories

2 Responses

  1. Keith Silliman says:

    Very interesting article. Thank you.

  2. MudRat says:

    Scott is hands down the “dean of Adirondack plane wrecks” as you said. He and I have had a few great adventures, one of which involved an exciting find. Great article.