ELIZABETHTOWN, N.Y. — Hidden among the rugged mountains, spruce thickets and mossy bogs of New York's 6-million-acre Adirondack Park lie the remnants of dozens of planes that have met their doom over the decades.
They include single-engine private planes, military jets and commercial aircraft. Some are well-known, like the Air Force B-47 bomber that crashed into Wright Peak in 1962, leaving wreckage visited by hikers to this day. Others have nearly vanished, leaving little but scraps of canvas and rusted steel beneath ferns and fallen trees.
Forest Ranger Scott Van Laer has made it his mission to tell their stories. He's an aviation archaeologist, also known as a "wreck chaser." What started as a work assignment to update a list of crash sites has become an off-duty obsession involving hundreds of hours poring over Federal Aviation Administration and military crash records, interviewing old-timers, networking on web message boards and hiking to remote crash sites.
"This is one of the first planes I looked for," Van Laer said as he bushwhacked through dense woods and beaver marsh on a recent Sunday in search of a Cessna 207 "Skywagon" that crashed in 1970 in the Jay Mountain range of the northeastern Adirondacks. "Turns out I looked totally on the wrong mountain. That's because the crash list was put together by a ranger in the '80s before GPS. It wasn't precise."
This time, Van Laer was accompanied by local resident Jim Beaton, who had visited the site soon after the crash. Beaton led the way to the white and yellow shards of fuselage, wings and tail scattered through the swath of forest where Harvey Shaw, a former Air Force pilot, crashed in heavy fog and died. Van Laer documented the site with photographs and GPS readings.
In addition to cataloging crash sites for the Department of Environmental Conservation, Van Laer is writing a book about Adirondack plane crashes, which he expects to publish next year. He has documented more than 200 crashes in the region, with wreckage remaining in the woods from about 50. He has visited about two dozen sites. Some, long forgotten in remote areas, took multiple trips to find.
"One I'm still looking for is a Connecticut National Guard plane that went down in the Moose River Plains in 1956," he said. "The pilot dragged himself for 36 hours with a broken leg until some loggers saved him."
Some sites hold military history. One is on Blue Ridge in the central Adirondacks, where a U.S. Army C-46 transport plane crashed in 1944 during a night training mission, killing the three people on board. Despite an intense search, the wreckage wasn't found until nearly a year later by someone searching for a different lost aircraft.
"A group of wreck chasers found it about 15 years ago and put a plaque on the wing and hung a flag," Van Laer said. "Now a few people go to it every year."
As he searches for sites, Van Laer often seeks out surviving relatives to see if they want to visit the wrecks. In 2014, he led a pilot's son to wreckage of a Cherokee 140 on Iroquois Mountain on the 45th anniversary of the crash. "That one was celebratory because his father survived," he said.
One wreck remains a mystery. The twin-engine jet of an Atlanta developer crashed shortly after takeoff from Burlington, Vermont, in January 1971. A search ranging from the eastern Adirondacks to the Vermont side of Lake Champlain was fruitless. The jet and five men on board are still missing.
After Van Laer happened to meet the pilot's daughter on a wreck-chasing message board, he organized a search in Lake Champlain in 2014 involving state police divers and private contractors with a mini submarine. He helped family members organize another private search last year.
"That one's been tough," Van Laer said. "I really want to help bring closure to the family."
The pilot's niece, Barbara Nikitas, of Beverly Hills, California, said Van Laer is a godsend for a family that longs for answers after 45 years.
"It's been wonderful to have his support and knowledge," said Nikitas, 59. "Not knowing what happened has always been very devastating to us."