Chronicling plane crashes
Scott Van Laer, an off-duty forest ranger, sits in the back of a small Cessna plane scouring the forest below for plane wreckage dating back to September 1959.
Over the headset, I hear him comment about not having any luck finding it. I’m sitting in the front seat with pilot Phil Blinn to my left. On the horizon are the snow-covered Adirondack High Peaks.
“There’s a little more snow than I thought,” Van Laer says. “The sun’s just not hitting it. There’s a lot of spruce.”
The wreckage we are looking for is from a Conservation Department (a precursor to the state Department of Environmental Conservation) plane that crashed on a fish-stocking assignment. The accident killed Saranac Inn fish hatchery worker Chester Jackson, a 55-year-old Saranac Lake area resident, and injured four others.
The single-engine De Haviland Otter, piloted by Roy Curtis, had flown out of the Saranac Lake Airport (now the Adirondack Regional Airport) in Lake Clear, according to a Sept. 21, 1959, article in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise. From there, it flew south to drop trout into Moose Pond. There are many Moose Ponds in the Adirondacks; this one is located east of Sawtooth Mountain and just south of Wanika Falls, a short walk west of the Northville-Placid Trail.
After that, the plane headed south and circled round on the way to three small Wallface ponds on the north slope of the 3,976-foot MacNaughton Mountain.
“As he attempted to climb the steep valley of the Roaring Brook he noticed the plane was losing power,” the Enterprise reported at the time.
The pilot then stalled the engine and “bellied down into a tall pine.”
“There were two backfires just before we hit,” Curtis told the Enterprise.
Curtis was a veteran pilot with 18 years of experience flying for the Navy and more than a year with the Conservation Department, and he took the second plane to the South Pole in November 1956, according to the Enterprise.
Looking into the trees below, we make several passes trying to find plane debris. The sky is clear and blue, the winds are light and the flight is mostly smooth. Still, occasionally our small plane bucks, feeling like it just hit a pothole, which is enough of a jolt to have one’s stomach drop suddenly.
Sitting with a pair of cameras on my lap, I open the window from time to time. As the door lifts upward toward the wind, the cold air rushes into the cabin. I lean out the window to take photos. The Roaring Brook drainage on Street Mountain, which is where we believed the wreckage is located, is surrounded by spruce and hardwood. Flecks of snowy ground cover reflect the sun through the trees, especially on the bare rock where water runs down the mountain.
“It’s probably not far off the drainage,” says Van Laer. “They walked out that drainage.”
We’re looking for the wreckage because Van Laer has developed a hobby of researching and finding plane crash sites in the Adirondacks. He paid for this chartered trip with Adirondack Scenic Flights out of the Lake Placid Airport. This hobby is a self-funded expansion of a project he’s worked on for the DEC. In his spare time, Van Laer reads old newspaper articles and National Transportation Safety Board reports and talks to former DEC employees and plane crash survivors. He also explores the remote Adirondack woods looking for the old planes. He hopes to one day to put all the information into a published book.
He believes there have been about 200 significant plane crashes in the Adirondack Park and just outside its borders. He’s chronicled about 170 of them, he said. Of those plane crashes, about 60 killed people. Nineteen were Canadian or U.S. military planes, and two were commercial flights.
Van Laer’s interest stems from when he was a child. Growing up he helped his father, also a forest ranger, respond to crashes in the Catskill Mountain region during the 1970s and 1980s. When he was 12, he helped his father remove flagging that was used to guide rescuers to one site. He took the altimeter from the plane home with him that day.
“People have always had a fascination with flight, and I find that the stories behind these crashes are compelling,” Van Laer said. “You have the interesting aviation part. There’s the tragic part, in many cases. There’s the story of search and rescue, which I’m always interested in … Also it’s been a useful tool honing my search-and-rescue skills, honestly. They are very hard to find on the ground. Something that is not calling back to you and that does not smell is very hard to find, especially if they’ve had decades of leaves and trees growing up around them. So it’s helped me professionally searching for these planes, even though I do most of it off of the clock, off work.”
When the plane we are looking for crashed, co-pilot Charles Deuel, of Lake Clear, could hear and feel parts breaking off the plane, according to the Enterprise. The pontoons and both wings were sheared off, and the plane came to rest about 10 feet off the ground on a rocky ledge.
The four survivors were James Lindsay, assistant superintendent of the Bureau of Fish, hatchery worker Arthur Martin, Duele and Curtis. Martin was badly burned on his face and was unable to use his hands. Lindsay had a broken leg. Both men tried to make their way out of the woods but had to hunker down because of their injuries.
Their lives were left in the hands of Curtis and Deuel, who crawled, climbed and scrambled through the thick woods to a ranger cabin at Duck Hole, about 5 miles away. The trek took six-and-a-half hours. Once there, they broke into the cabin and called for help.
A helicopter and ground search ensued, rescuing all four people.
As we fly through the sky above this scene, where a fire from the plane crash burned that tragic night, we see no sign of it. Nature has reclaimed the landscape.
With a another potential site to check out, we head northwest. This wreckage we are now looking for is supposed to be in the area just north of Moose Pond, a few miles away. In December 1958, 59-year-old pilot Julian Reiss and his daughter Pat crashed here. Reiss was the founder of Santa’s Workshop and the North Pole in Wilmington. He also owned several automobile dealerships in the area.
“He said he was unable to maintain enough power and at the same time something went wrong with the radio compass,” the Albany Knickerbocker News reported. “The plane struck tree tops, fell to the ground and flipped over.”
Reiss claimed that ice formed on the plane, causing the crash.
The crash occurred after dark, and the Reisses were forced to spend the night in the woods. They fought off the cold by stuffing maps and clothing in the broken windows of the plane. In the morning, they climbed a nearby peak, spotted Whiteface Mountain and started walking toward it. After a mile they found the Northville-Placid Trail, which they followed for about 10 miles to Averyville Road on the edge of Lake Placid, according to newspaper reports.
This time, flying above the trees, we have better luck spotting what we believe are remains of their plane. On the ground next to a wetland is an unidentifiable chunk of white debris. A photo I took will also show some more on a winding stream nearby. I don’t notice it at the time.
Van Laer, on a previous hiking trip, found other parts of the plane near Wanika Falls. It had the words “North Pole, N.Y.” written across it in red letters. He believes people moved it to that area.
During a few more passes, I snap photos of the peaks. The streams weaving through the woods; the snowy mountains rising on the horizon and the dismal, leafless trees. It’s not the best time of the year to take photographs, but the scenery is undeniably beautiful and remote. It’s also not a place you want to crash, but if you do, you can survive.
Our pilot, talking about this back at the airport, says he has known small plane pilots who have crashed and lived.
“As long as you have your seat belts on and you know the terrain, you can pick some trees that are fairly soft, you can land the airplane real slow,” Blinn says. “If you see two big trees out there, you let the wings take all of the impact and that slows it down even more, so by the time you hit the ground, you’re not going all that fast.”
Plane crashes are rare, but with 200 and counting in the wild Adirondacks, pilots like him are wise to think about this ahead of time.