Bored hiking? Find a plane wreck Hobby: Aviation archaeology has become a passion for hikers in northern New England. Having seen all the beautiful sights, they try to relocate scores of old plane wrecks, many of them in forbidding wilderness.

Sun Journal

August 14, 1996|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

GORHAM, N.H. -- The mountains of northern New England are alive with pristine alpine plants and, after an especially wet summer, cascading brooks and squadrons of mosquitoes. The water roars. The bugs zing. There is wave after wave of the forest green Appalachians in Vermont and New Hampshire and the bumpy universe of Maine, into which all the rest of New England could be poured.

So the hikers are in the high season. They amble on their favorite hills, pondering the meaning of life on a day without the Internet. Or they hustle up and down the prized peaks that rise above 4,000 feet -- the five in Vermont, 48 in New Hampshire, 12 in Maine. But among the hikers is a subspecies: those who hunt for old plane wrecks, many of them in rough country.

These hikers have done all the hills and seen all the postcard views from on high. Now they search for the dwindling remains of dozens of downed aircraft -- a B-29 up here, a FH-277 up there, a DC-3 -- hidden from normal view in the folds of the northern Appalachians.

Near the summit of Mount Success in New Hampshire's White Mountains, they found parts of the fuselage, wings, landing gear and the flight deck of a Northeast Airlines DC-3 that crashed in 1954. For Hank Peterson, a retired Concord banker who is president of the informal Aviation Archaeological Club of New Hampshire, the effort is fun. "It's mainly a lark for me, but others take it more seriously," he says.

He was talking during a 14-mile round-trip hike to the DC-3 in the rough Mahoosuc Range near the Maine border. He and Doug Wyman have hiked all 48 4,000-footers in their state, and with other Concord friends, such as Nick Wallner, turned to airplane wrecks in the hills as a fresh goal.

Wallner, who manages a Concord travel agency, has hiked to more than 20 wrecks, several long forgotten after they were originally found. He rates himself somewhere between the truly obsessed and the outdoor-loving Peterson.

"The initial reason was curiosity," he says, "but the orienteering aspect took over. Many people don't go off trail anymore. And I enjoy the challenge of finding something." In one case, he was able to provide site details for an appreciative relative of a deceased crash victim who had become frustrated at not learning much from official channels.

In Maine, the plane-wreck hunters may drive on a logging road and walk a few feet to see landing gear and hundreds of pieces of a B-52 bomber whose tail fell off in 1963 on the lower slopes of Elephant Mountain deep in the North woods. The tail is a mile and a half from the rest of the wreck. The bomber was on a training flight and wasn't carrying nuclear weapons.

Other hikers conduct memorial services at crash sites, such as the one on rugged, isolated Mount Waternomee in the western White Mountains of New Hampshire. Portions of a B-18 bomber remain after a 1942 crash that killed two.

Or they may be like Brian Lindner and concentrate on one plane. For years he has studied and written about the Camel's Hump crash of a B-24 bomber in Vermont in 1944 (nine of 10 died).

The wrecks testify to pilot error, airframe failures and the region's turbulent weather. But the crashes also underscore the rugged nature of the northern countryside and how tricky it is to fly over in bad weather. Many of the wrecks have stayed where they are because of the difficulty of removing them from peaks, lakes andswamps.

In this region, the most famous plane never found is the White Bird (L'Oiseau Blanc). Capts. Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli flew it in 1927 across the Atlantic from Paris, two weeks before Charles Lindbergh's historic flight in the opposite direction. Bound for New York, the plane disappeared, and may have crashed in the Atlantic or in Canada. Some said they heard it over Newfoundland.

But for years some Maine residents, sometimes aided by the high-tech expertise of the Smithsonian Institution, have searched for it in the woods near Machias in eastern Maine. Others, including a group chasing Amelia Earhart's disappearance, have also looked.

The local people, especially members of the Maine Aviation Historical Society, lean heavily on reports such as the one from fisherman Anson Berry, who claims he heard the plane go down May 9, 1927, near Round Lake, and on another from a rescue pilot's sighting of supposed plane wreckage in an unrelated search for a missing aircraft in 1942.

The search for a plane like the White Bird is a detective story carried out in libraries, in listening to hunters' stories, in tracking down one lead after another.

Some planes are found by accident years after official searches end.

An Iowa pilot flying on the last leg from Burlington, Vt., to Portland, Maine, in March 1966, was sought in a large, unsuccessful search. Six years later, a hiker breaking trail found the upside-down plane at the 2,800-foot level of 3,500-foot Jenkins Peak in New Hampshire. The corpse of the pilot was still strapped in his seat.

Others are discovered by intense curiosity.

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