Forest Ranger Scott Van Laer tracks down the remains—and the stories— of aircraft that crashed in the Adirondacks over the years.
By Kenneth Aaron
As 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 couldn’t we 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 out, but in a lot of places it was hard to see far past the next tree. It took only 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.
“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.
Some 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 minisubmarine, 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.”
Mark Barbour says
I helped to find a plane wreck on Blue ridge near Lewey Lake about 15 years ago. It was a C45 that crashed on a low level training flight in September of 1944. It took 5 times up the mountain to find it. The wings engines, propellers were all still there. Three pilots from Syracuse Air base were lost in that crash. I would like to go back up there again soon. I have lots of photos of our find.
Josh Bedell says
Where about is this wreck located? I would love to check it out
Sharron & Geoff Hewston says
I think this speaks volumes of the character in reference to DEC Officer Van Laer who looks for the sites, he often seeks out surviving relatives to see if they have any interest in visiting the wrecks. I am certain the family’s are extremely grateful. Such an honorable thing he does to ease other’s heartache. Thank You for your service and your kindness. – See more at: https://www.adirondackexplorer.org/stories/dean-of-plane-wrecks#sthash.dK3VohWC.mjGPyvnC.dpuf
My wife’s family had this experience in 1969 when her Uncle, William Reiner took off from Roquette Lake in a float plane and crashed into Davis Mountain, between Indian Lake and North Creek. It was around July 29, 1969. He was on the way to his niece’s Christening. We are curious where that wreckage may be….
Marigene Kowalski says
My condolences on the loss of your wife’s uncle, William Reiner. I heard about the unfortunate incident from my aunt Mary Ann, Laura’s mother.
I have found that crash. Scottvanlaer@yahoo.com
My friends and I came across this wreck (or a wreck) while climbing the Seward’s so Thanksgiving weekend in the late 80s? Before mobile phones,GPS or the Internet.I might have a photo of the wreck somewhere. We were some hundreds of feet below the summit ridge in the snow. Best of luck finding it.
We came across this wreckage right after the 1998 Labor Day storm. We got lost going up the herd path due to the severe storm damage. I was only a teenager, however my dad likely knows exactly where it is, feel free to contact us.
William McElhaney says
Hi Emily, I’d be interested in knowing where this 1945 wreck is. I can be reached at email@example.com
In September 1999 I and several others were heading to Seward when we lost the herd path and wandered toward the northeast shoulder of Seward. As we bushwhacked to the southwest to pick up the path near the ridge line we came upon the wreckage of a small plane. We found no evidence of human remains, only a single shoe amidst the rubble. It seemed like the accident had happened some time ago as the area was quite overgrown. I think I can come pretty close to identifying where this wreck is and would be glad to talk to Scott about it.
Doug Keith says
I stumbled onto that small plane wreckage with the shoe also. I have been curious about who crashed, and when, but I have never found any information on it. I could find it again too.
Philip Vander Molen says
How far into the woods is the site and is it accessible from Jessup/Mud Lake Road or is there a better way in?
Hello, I am looking to contact an individual with information pertaining to past ADK plane crash sites. I am currently in the process of creating a detailed map of these sites.
Let me know.
This subject intrigues me, sad as it is.
Daryl M Williams says
My father, Major Charles H. Imschweiler and pilot LT. John Carved crashed a T 33 in Forestport August 7, 1951. We visited that area a few times and we even found parts of the jet in a garage owned by Charlotte Johnson who lived nearby. Anyone hear of this?