Hunt for missing pilots drags on


Learjet: Professional and volunteer searchers have put in thousands of hours seeking the wreckage of a plane that vanished on final approach to a New Hampshire airport in 1996.

August 13, 1999|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It took about four days last month for the U.S. government to find John F. Kennedy Jr.'s airplane and its occupants in the Atlantic Ocean.

But after 31 months of mostly volunteer searching, the mystery of the missing Learjet 35A and its two occupants drags on in New England.

Family, friends, hikers, hunters, professional searchers and others are still scouring the deep woods and waters of New Hampshire and Vermont for any sign of the presumed downed Learjet N388LS from Connecticut. They continue to appeal for help from anyone.

"The searchers have been fantastic," says Jay Hayes, 42, of Essex, Conn., whose brother was on the plane. "About 200 regularly look. We stopped counting after the first 10,000 hours. It's far beyond that now. But we keep looking. We need closure."

The computer specialist has helped coordinate thousands of hours of private searches by volunteers since his brother, Capt. Patrick Hayes, 30, of Clinton, Conn., and co-pilot Johan Schwartz, 31, of Westport, Conn., disappeared without a trace from skies near Lebanon, N.H., in their airplane Christmas Eve 1996.

The experienced, instrument-rated commercial pilots flew the Learjet owned by Aircraft Charter Group, of Teterboro, N.J., from Bridgeport, Conn., to the overcast, rainy area of the West Lebanon Airport in New Hampshire.

They were to land, pick up a family of four there and take them the same day to Southampton, N.Y., for the Christmas holiday.

The aviators had a routine flight of just over 30 minutes that morning. They contacted controllers in Nashua, N.H., missed an approach to one of the airport runways for unknown reasons and were making a swing to another runway.

The cloud ceiling was 1,200 feet. They dropped below radar at 4,700 feet, which is normal on approach.

Then, silence. There was no distress call. No word of any trouble. No plane. No wreckage. Nothing for 31 months. The pilots have long since been presumed dead.

"This was a walk in the park for them," says Hayes. But something went wrong. Investigators believe the plane smashed into the ground at high speed and disintegrated, killing the two men.

One scenario for the disappearance in bad weather is a "controlled flight into terrain," descending during landing into the side of one of the many mountains in the area. Another is stalling while making the final turn before landing. Human error or mechanical failure is likely.

The family and some others began looking for wreckage immediately. Agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board were notified. New Hampshire's Fish and Game Department joined for several days until Jan. 6, 1997; it cited lack of knowledge of where to look in what it called one of its biggest searches ever.

Since then, thousands of volunteers, many on their own, have examined parts of more than 50 sites including mountains, lakes and the nearby Connecticut River, Hayes said.

Thousands of wooded acres are possible impact sites. Even near the wreck, searchers might see nothing. Some might already have been near the downed plane.

"You can easily walk by the pieces and never see them because of the heavy undergrowth and trees," says Hayes. "The pieces and crater will be small, the area only about 50 feet across."

Scores of airplanes have crashed in hilly New England. Most were soon found; others took longer, a year or more. Around the world, wrecks are often found years later.

Members of three professional search groups from New York state, Massachusetts and New Hampshire hiked for about 10 days in late July and early August on the north side of Carr Mountain, 20 miles north of the airport in New Hampshire.

They found no sign of the Learjet, but they plan to return. Carr is in the Warren-Wentworth area, a target area partly because of some promising reports from witnesses.

Other searches have been in New Hampshire on Mount Cardigan, Moose Mountain, Tug Hill and Signal Hill near Lebanon, Rattlesnake Mountain, Cube Mountain, Smarts Mountain, Ames Mountain, Hurricane Mountain and Mount Mooselauke. Across the Connecticut River, others concentrate in Vermont hills; some have looked south in northwestern Massachusetts.

"Nobody knows exactly where the plane is," says Hayes, because no one knows in what direction the plane was last flying. The jet was going fast, last speed known to be 258 miles an hour.

About 250 people -- in a large area from Massachusetts to southern Canada -- reported they heard or saw what might have been the Learjet.

The search for Kennedy; his wife, Carolyn; and her sister Lauren Bessette stirred sympathy in the Hayes and Schwartz families.

"We are still living that very same pain," Hayes says. "We're not famous like the Kennedys, but we are human. Where it was comforting for the Kennedys to see all that search activity, we've never seen anything like that. The nearly unbearable pain won't subside until we know the answer for our families."

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