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Despite big searches, wreckage of some planes is never found

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By BILL ADAIR

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 21, 1999


High above the mountains of New England, the pilots became confused.

They were trying to land their Learjet at the small airport in Lebanon, N.H., in a cold drizzle on Christmas Eve 1996, but they realized they weren't close to the runway.

"We're not receiving the localizer," pilot Patrick Hayes, 30, told an air traffic controller, referring to the radio signal that helps planes align with the runway. Co-pilot Johan Schwartz, 31, apparently turned the plane to try another approach, but a few minutes later, the plane vanished from radar.

The 8-ton jet hasn't been seen since.

The disappearance of the plane 2 1/2 years ago is a reminder that some are never found, despite exhaustive searches involving hundreds of people and dozens of planes and ships.

In the past 10 years, 53 planes have never been found, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Most of the missing planes have been lost in water or in Alaska.

Although the search for the Learjet may not have been as massive as the current effort to find the missing plane of John F. Kennedy Jr., the New Hampshire search was a giant operation that included the Civil Air Patrol, the Air National Guard, New Hampshire police and hundreds of volunteers.

Planes and helicopters flew along the Learjet's flight path and buzzed over the two mountains where the plane was believed to have crashed. Hundreds of people scoured the thick woods. Divers plunged into frigid water in the nearby lakes.

"The effort they put into it was extraordinary," Matt Hayes, the brother of the pilot, said Tuesday.

Once the government gave up, volunteers kept looking on weekends.

The New Hampshire search was difficult for many of the same reasons the search for the Kennedy plane has been difficult. Radar data is imprecise. Also, it appears both planes were swallowed by their surroundings.

The New Hampshire woods are so thick with pine trees that it's difficult to search from above. The best way to peer through the woods is by helicopters at low altitudes, but that makes searches more time-consuming.

"In a densely wooded area, planes can be very difficult to find: You have to look for broken treetops and that sort of thing," said Charlotte Crowe, a spokeswoman for the Civil Air Patrol, an Air Force auxiliary group that leads the search for most missing planes.

The New Hampshire search is complicated by the mountains. There are more than 150 at least 2,000 feet high within a 35-mile radius of Lebanon, according to the Boston Globe.

Crowe said there is no limit on how long her agency will search. Some searches have lasted several weeks, she said.

Although his mother wrote a letter to President Clinton two years ago pleading for more federal help, Matt Hayes said Tuesday that he doesn't feel the search for his brother suffered because he was not a celebrity like Kennedy.

"The nature of the two searches is completely different," Hayes said. "I hope they put as much effort as it takes" to find Kennedy's plane.

In the meantime, the search for the Learjet goes on.

Hayes' family has a Web site with suggestions for anyone who wants to continue the search. It contains detailed information for pilots who want to fly over the area to conduct their own searches and a report on the missing plane from the National Transportation Safety Board. "Pilot and copilot are presumed to be fatally injured," the report says.

It also has a flier that people can print and post in the airports and mountains around the apparent crash site.

"We are asking experienced hunters and pilots to be aware of anything unusual as they hunt or fly the mountains of Vermont and N.H.," the flier says. "This would include burned-out areas, breaks in trees, pieces of metal, insulation, etc."

The flier ends with this message: "Our families have suffered a tremendous loss. We must continue the search for our loved ones until they are found."

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