Aircraft Archaeology in the High Adirondacks

Hiking seven miles to one of the tallest peaks in the Adirondacks -- in the rain -- is not most people's idea of fun, but when searching for one of the many airplane wrecks hidden among the upstate New York park's mountains, pain and discomfort are irrelevant. What was relevant was finding a hull of a Piper Cherokee 140 that crashed in the col between Mount Marshall and Iroquois Peak just after midnight on August 10, 1969.

I hadn’t planned on my work intersecting with my play during this vacation, but that changed during a mountain hike on Monday, Aug. 11, with friends from the DC area who were also vacationing near Lake Placid. David Radcliffe, a former Army Ranger and currently the director of leadership and organizational development at the Pentagon (pictured above), was leading a group of nine hikers, old and young, on a 12-mile journey to the 4,587-ft. peak of Mount Colden, a tough climb, especially for those of us not used to moving a half mile in the vertical direction by way of large rocks and boulders. Radcliffe knew there were crash sites to visit in the mountains, and he had already piqued my interest with the prospect of another hike in the coming days to find one. 

Upon reaching the summit of Colden in the noon hour, we rested and lunched, but with some company – a group of four New York State Dept. of Environmental Conservation (DEC) forest rangers, who were also taking a break with the breathtaking views from the summit. Radcliffe asked the rangers about the exact location of the Cherokee 140 crash on the other side of the deep valley from our location. 

One of the rangers not only knew about the crash site, but he had pictures on his digital camera. It turns out that the day before – Aug. 10 – he had led a small group of people, including the crash pilot’s son, grandson and a friend, to the site to commemorate the 45th anniversary of their father/grandfather’s amazing tale of survival. Days later, upon researching the crash, I found out that the knowledgeable ranger on Colden was none other than Scott van Laer, known as one of the foremost experts in Adirondack crashes and a future author on a book about the more than 200 accidents there, going back more than a century.

The hook was set, and my 15-yr-old son and I agreed to meet Radcliffe early on Wednesday to see for ourselves the remainder of N6483R while also accomplishing one of Radcliffe’s goals, summiting Mount Marshall, one of the 46 Adirondack peaks over 4,000 ft. With 34 peaks completed, Radcliffe was well on his way to becoming a “46er”, those who have summited all 46. Marshall would be #35. 

Wednesday dawned rainy and cold, but onward we slogged, waterlogged, up the mountain at Army Ranger speed (somewhat fast you say?) from Heart Lake along Indian Pass trail and up, up, and up in “bushwacking” mode along a largely unused trail that leads to the 3,800 ft.-high col that forms a saddle between the Marshall and Iroquois peaks. 

Instructions to find the wreckage were somewhat vague – proceed to top of the col, then down the other side, and when you see a big rock dividing the trail, the wreckage is only 100 ft. away. One gets a feel for the challenges faced by search and rescue crews, particularly when rain blurs your vision and wind rips at your jacket and hood. My eagle-eyed teenager, Anders, found the site, a metal ghost in an otherwise pristine forest. 

F. Peter Simmons would have first seen this forest when the sun came up on Aug. 10, 1969. According to van Laer’s research, Simmons, 43, a Grumman employee, had departed Islip Airport on Long Island that Saturday evening in a borrowed Cherokee 140 for the flight to a grass field near Big Tupper Lake in the Adirondacks, where his family had a vacation home (and still has a vacation home). He had a private pilot’s license, but no instrument rating, and 365 hours of flight time, 45 hours of it in a Cherokee, according to the NTSB report on the accident.

Van Laer originally began rediscovering old wrecks as part of his job, an effort to update a DEC log of locations where planes had crashed, an invaluable tool for search and rescue teams (and hikers for that matter) in determining crashes that have already been discovered as opposed to those that have not. The log had not been updated since the early 1980s, and wreck locations were approximate at best (and GPS was not a household item). “In many cases a ranger who was making the list would just ask a ranger who had been around when the plane had crashed to point out the location on a map,” says van Laer.  

He took on the job of getting GPS coordinates for accidents already on the books, and updating the logs from the 80s to today. “It started out as that – a work project,” he says. “Then I started getting into the history aspect of it, the search and rescue elements, the plane and pilot, and it became a hobby.” He refers to his hobby as wreck-chasing, or aviation archeology. 

For work, he’s nailed the location of the 20 wrecks on the list to date (those with substantial amounts of parts or pieces left), and has another 20 or 30 to go. During the process, he found that one wreck was “on an entirely different mountain than was listed”. For pleasure, he’s found documentation on about 200 crashes going back over 100 years, starting with newspaper accounts, which he augments with on-line research, phone calls with survivors, talks with rangers, or anyone with information. Often he finds misinformation in the various accounts, for example the myth that Simmons, now 88 and living in California, was never able to drive a car again after his crash due to damage to his eyes caused by hitting the control panel during the crash (aircraft at the time did not have shoulder harnesses, only lap belts). Van Laer says he not only drove again, but tried flying again, briefly. 

That night in ‘69, the weather was not good, particularly for a VFR pilot (visual flight rules). Van Laer says Simmons stopped in Albany, New York, to wait for the weather to clear, and then departed for the Adirondack Regional Airport at Saranac Lake, given that the grass strip did not have lights. On the descent into Saranac, the Cherokee 140 “started going down and Simmons couldn’t stop the descent rate”, says van Laer. Simmons told the investigators he encountered severe downdrafts; however the NTSB listed the probable cause as “spatial disorientation”. Either way, Simmons says he put the 140 in a slow-flight configuration with the nose raised, and went softly into the blackness below at 65 mph airspeed. 

Faced with a potential disaster, his stars aligned that night – the aircraft pancaked into a stand of young trees and came to rest only 100 ft. from a trail and “missed all the boulders that were in there,” says van Laer. The aircraft did not carry an emergency locator transmitter, but word of the crash traveled fast in the mountain community.

Crash site pictures, to this day, attest to how lucky indeed Simmons was. The aircraft is largely intact, although one wing separated from the fuselage. The fuselage is also marked, presumably, by the Civil Air Patrol to alert hikers that they’ve come across a wreck that is already in the books. The 140’s engine was carried down the mountain by rangers long ago (an amazing task given the steepness and rockiness of the descent) and van Laer says the insurance company took out some avionics. It’s hard to tell which hikers over the decades might have also carried out a keepsake. Below are pictures of the 140, with Radcliffe and Anders Croft (red raincoat) inside. 

As part of the 45th anniversary hike, van Laer introduced Simmons’ son to the retired ranger Gary Hodgson, who along with a local “caretaker” found his father at dusk a little more than 20 hours after the crash. “As they were fanning out in the trail, right by the large rock, all of a sudden they hear a gust of wind and it must have moved a part of the plane,” says van Laer of a conversation with Hodgson. “It was a ‘barn door’ sound, and not something that should be in the woods.” One hundred feet away, they found Simmons still in the plane, semi-conscious. He had shattered his cheekbone, fractured his skull, crushed his left eye socket, broke his lower jaw, as well as a leg, ankle and wrist. Simmons was airlifted out the next morning by a forest service helicopter and flown to the Lake Placid medical center, where as luck would have it, a “pretty renowned plastic surgeon on vacation in Lake Placid” had heard about the crash and came in to operate on his face,” says van Laer. “[Simmons] would always joke, according to his son, that he was a lot better looking after the crash.”

A little over a year later, on Sept. 1, 1970, Simmons' son came to the site, and appropriately marked the side of the fuselage, but hadn’t been back until Aug. 10 this year. 

A bit of Simmons’ luck must have rubbed off on us hikers - we met van Laer by sheer luck; we found Simmons’ plane, and we summited Mount Marshall despite the continuing rain. And Radcliffe the next week completed the remainder of his high peaks, becoming a ‘46er’ on August. 22