The mystery of the missing jet Search: Last December, two pilots and their Learjet vanished without a trace while trying to land in poor weather in New Hampshire. An unofficial search continues.


October 29, 1997|By Ernest F. Imhoff and Frederick N. Rasmussen | Ernest F. Imhoff and Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

WEST LEBANON, N.H. -- The missing Learjet.

Mention those three words to people in New Hampshire and they'll know what you're talking about. Chances are each has a theory on where it crashed and why.

Last Christmas Eve, two professional pilots and their jet vanished while trying to land in poor weather here. Thus began the most intense search-and-rescue operation in state history. The aircraft was presumed down, the pilots soon presumed dead -- but nothing has been found. Informal searches continue to this day. The mystery transfixes many.

"People are absolutely still looking," says Maj. Ronald Alie, chief of law enforcement of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. "Not a week goes by when there isn't some word of a search somewhere."

The disappearance, not unknown in the north woods, has meant agonizing months for the families of the two Connecticut pilots, Johan Schwartz, 31, of Westport and Patrick Hayes, 30, of

Clinton. Family, friends and strangers have logged hundreds of hours in searches.

"We're re-interviewing people and will look more after the leaves fall," says Dr. Paul Schwartz of Westport, Johan's father, who will continue weekend searches until the snows return. "The hunters will be valuable. They will go places no one has gone."

He said some air searches may resume soon across the Connecticut River in Vermont near West Topsham and north. Many have looked north of the airport on Moose Mountain, Smarts Mountain, Cube Mountain and Mount Mooselauke. Divers have looked in ponds. Hikers have bushwhacked off trails.

State officials in New Hampshire have handled hundreds of reported sightings or hearings and a few ideas from people with dowsing rods, psychic feelings and visions from God. The Fish and Game Department in Concord has a file of 275 reports related to the disappearance from all directions.

"We'd like it to come to an end," says Timothy J. Edwards, manager of Lebanon Airport and Business Park, where the Learjet tried to land. "Unfortunately, there hasn't been one scrap of new evidence since the plane went down Christmas Eve."

How can an airplane just disappear in this modern age?

Easy, say pilots and woodsmen.

It's the tip of a needle in a haystack. Thousands of acres in New Hampshire and nearby Vermont are wooded, uninhabited, uncrossed by trails or roads, thick with undergrowth. Nearby are the rugged White Mountains. The white jet vanished with snow on the ground. Thick coniferous pines can hide a broken DC-3 from someone 15 feet away, as they do on Mount Success, near Berlin, N.H., where one crashed in 1954.

When a plane crashes, it may disintegrate into many pieces that are hard to recognize from the air or even on the ground. Especially, the Lear. It was a relatively small plane, about 48 feet long, and when last heard from, traveling at 258 miles per hour. It would have smashed and scattered beyond easy recognition.

Unlike propeller planes like Piper Cubs, the jet flying over land wasn't required by law to carry -- and didn't -- an emergency locater transmitter (ELT), costing $1,000 or less. In a crash, officials say, it would have emitted a radio beacon that might have located the plane the day it disappeared.

A few conspiracy theorists guess the pilots just flew away and are living it up on some beach. No way, say aviation experts here such as Edwards: "There's no evidence of that."

Further, says Brian Boland, a balloonist and pilot who owns the small Post Mills, Vt., airport not far away, "It's hard to hide a whole Learjet." On the other hand, he adds, it is often difficult to recognize parts of a crashed plane just feet away. He shows a pile of crumpled pipes no bigger than a desk -- all that remained of a Piper Cub after it crash-landed and burned at the airport.

He was told of a British World War II flier who crashed his Spitfire into a large tree in English woods and died, unnoticed. "Forty years passed," says Boland. "A development was built. Someone looked up at a different angle and noticed the wreckage. The skeleton was up there."

Boland's wife, Louise, and a neighbor said they saw a white plane, apparently a jet, fly by the airport last Christmas Eve. "It was very low, it had low wings like a Lear, it was in a funny place," Mrs. Boland says. "The whole thing struck me as weird."

Airport manager Edwards describes the last known hours of the Lear 35 turbojet, N388LS, operated by Aircraft Charter Group Inc.

The plane took off from Bridgeport, Conn., on the morning of Dec. 24, 1996, and flew north toward Lebanon Airport to pick up John and Helen Skelly of Lyme, Conn., and their two children there and take them to Southampton, Long Island, N.Y., for Christmas.

Pilot Schwartz and co-pilot Hayes, both experienced fliers, arrived in the area about 10 a.m. It was raining and the cloud ceiling was 1,000 feet. They contacted the tower. Flying above 1,000 feet, they could not be seen.

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