THE WOODS are so deep.
After a search of almost three years, a broken Learjet airplane was found last month in the forests of Dor-chester, N.H., the remains of its two pilots strapped in their seats nearby.
I had looked for the plane in the woods on three separate occasions of bushwhacking off trails. Thousands of other volunteers had scoured the hills for thousands of hours in the most extensive search in New Hampshire history.
Two experienced commercial pilots from Connecticut -- Patrick Hayes, 30, of Clinton and Johan Schwartz, 31, of Westport -- had flown from Bridgeport on Christmas Eve morning in 1996. They were to land at Lebanon Municipal Airport, pick up a family and fly them to Long Island. The pilots aborted one landing attempt and were trying a second approach when they vanished without a distress call or a clue.
In the end, Learjet 35A, N388LS was found the way many people guessed it would be found. It was in numerous pieces under many trees on a mountainside. It was discovered accidentally. It was in an area often searched; one man had walked within 100 yards of it without seeing it. And it was only 20 miles from the airport.
If so many of these guesses had come true, why didn't the searchers find the aircraft earlier?
First of all, no one knew exactly where to look, because the plane was last reported flying at 258 miles per hour, and its heading at the end was unknown.
Once the modern jet presumably crashed, people asked how Learjet wreckage could not be found almost immediately with today's locating beepers. The frustrating answer: The Federal Aviation Administration doesn't require emergency locator transmitters (ELTs) on Learjets, and the plane's owner hadn't bothered to supply one. With an ELT (which costs $1,500 or less), the wreckage would have been found in hours.
Next came a question that recurred for three years, especially from urban people unfamiliar with the woods. How could the airplane stay hidden in the crowded Northeast despite widespread publicity alerting hikers, hunters and other outdoorsmen; despite organized search parties in 50 different areas; despite searchers so obsessed that they strained relations with their families; despite aerial observation flights; and despite serious studies by academics?
The story is, among other things, a lesson in New England geography. The woods are so deep. There are many places where people, trails and roads are miles away.
Perhaps my experiences can help explain.
Once off trail, you're alone. I have climbed to the tops of all 65 mountains in New England over 4,000 feet and almost as many smaller ones. I bushwhack some but mostly stick to trails. The thousands of acres between them are largely unknown to me.
Tree branches are so thick that they can create darkness. Alerted by breaking sticks once on Old Speck Mountain in Maine, I saw nothing until parting some firs and finding a moose and her two young ones staring at me from 15 feet away. I backed off.
Even bigger things hide easily. On a hike with two friends up Mount Success near Berlin, N.H., we were 10 yards from a DC-3 that crashed in 1954 before we saw its broken fuselage and wings.
Falling leaves and trees hide things. I've come across porcupines, skunks and groundhogs camouflaged. Pieces from a B-52 bomber that crashed in 1963 on Elephant Mountain in Maine are buried under three decades of leaf cover, though you can see many large sections in a debris field kept as a memorial to the downed fliers.
I had been drawn to the Learjet mystery and, for mixed reasons, looked for the plane in 1997 and 1998. The search was an adventure. It was also a mystery demanding to be solved. I sympathized with the families of the two pilots who agonized over their losses and the lack of closure while they searched.
Finding the Learjet would be like spotting a needle in a rough field of many haystacks. The hilly search area was about 50 miles in each direction from the Lebanon, N.H., airport. The plane was last known to be seven miles northeast of the Lebanon VOR (an electronic navigational aid that was five miles northeast of the airport), at 4,800 feet and flying east-northeast. The day was gray and wet, the ceiling 1,200 feet. Visibility below that was five miles with mist and winds at five knots. There had been more than 275 "sightings" or "hearings" of low-flying planes in the region.
People have figured that the Learjet hit a mountain as it was coming down, perhaps in a controlled descent.
I guessed that heavily wooded Mount Cube (2,909 feet) in Orford would be a good place to look. It was within a large wilderness of 25,000 acres that the experts said was a section where the plane might have crashed. It had a couple of roads east and west but none north and south. Cube sits on the Appalachian Trail, which goes over the top of Smarts Mountain (3,238 feet) to the south and near Sentinel Mountain to the northeast.
For two days in the summer of 1997 -- a half-year after the Learjet went missing -- I hiked alone on Mount Cube within several hundred yards of the Appalachian Trail. The going was rough. Balsam, spruce, poplar, maples and birches cover the region. From the summit, I saw an ocean of trees with no distinguishing landmarks.
Later that summer, I drove across the nearby Connecticut River, talked with an airport owner in Post Mills, Vt., and searched for two days in several hilly places where low planes had been heard. In the fall, I hiked with a friend, Sun reporter Fred Rasmussen, on Mount Mooselauke, north of Mount Cube, because its higher elevation of 4,802 feet made it a possible impact point.
Two years passed as others kept looking. Jay Hayes of Essex, Conn., brother of Patrick Hayes, continued checking out reports, searching in the woods and updating his Missing Learjet Web site. He was critical of officials for failing to help, most recently this summer after the search for the fallen plane of another private citizen, John F. Kennedy Jr.
Many planes crash, and some stay missing. Three years ago, Stan Smith, a data analysis chief with the National Transportation Safety Board, said 80 planes missing in the United States since 1983 had not been found. Many crashed in oceans or, like Louisiana Rep. Hale Boggs' plane, in wild Alaska, but some were presumed to have crashed on land in the lower 48 states.
Some planes stay lost despite searches. It was six years before a hiker in 1972 discovered a body and wreckage of a missing single-engine Cessna on Jenkins Peak, near Waterville, N.H. The Iowa pilot had disappeared en route from Burlington, Vt., to Portland, Me.
In another case, two doctors on a mercy mission to Berlin, N.H., lived for four days in bitter cold in February 1959, after their Piper Comanche crashed in the Pemigewasset Wilderness of New Hampshire. Searchers found their bodies and plane 10 weeks later.
Finally, last month, they found the Learjet. It turned out that in looking on Mount Cube, I had gone one mountain too far. The plane was next door on Smarts Mountain, two miles away.
According to the Associated Press, the Hartford Courant and the New Hampshire Sunday News, the mystery was solved this way:
On Thursday, November 11, forester Quentin Mack was checking trees on Smarts Mountain for possible cutting on private land. He was about 2,300 feet up the 3,238-foot mountain.
Mack was walking toward a large yellow birch tree in a wooded hollow of white birches when he saw the first piece of metal, then larger pieces, pieces in trees, sheered-off trees, and the pilots' remains in their seats on either side of the broken fuselage. The white birches were still bent from an ice storm after the plane had crashed, leaving the wreckage invisible from the air. In October, the owner of the land, Bob Greene, had walked within 100 yards of the site without noticing anything.
Lynne Tuohy, a Courant reporter who later bushwhacked the half-mile to the wreckage, wrote, "To make the arduous hike to the site is to understand that the plane's discovery is not so much long overdue as it is miraculous, given the wilderness in which it rests."
One longtime searcher, David Lachance of Manchester, came to the site and said, "Never. Never. We never would have found it."
Smarts had claimed at least one airplane before. A two-engine Piper Apache crashed into its fog-shrouded slopes in 1971. That plane also was aiming for Lebanon Airport. One of three occupants was killed, as was a National Guardsman who fell from a rescue helicopter trying to help the other two.
Mack, the forester, reported his discovery to Greene, who informed Jay Hayes in Connecticut. The next day, Hayes hiked to the scene and confirmed that the pieces were the remains of Learjet 35A, N388LS. On Nov. 13, other members of the Hayes and Schwartz families trudged more than a half-mile from a logging road to the scene. New Hampshire officials said the two pilots had died instantly on impact.
The cause of the crash is being investigated. Pilot error, mechanical failure or the low clouds in the hilly region might have been factors. The aviators were experienced. Pilot Hayes had flown 4,250 hours, including 832 in jets. Co-pilot Schwartz had 2,066 hours in the air, 267 in jets. An official of the National Transportation Safety Board removed the voice recorder for its probe but said the recorder's value was uncertain.
Jay Hayes thanked the searchers, saying, "Words cannot describe how grateful I am for the indescribable kindness and compassion extended to me and our families by all the kind people that have unselfishly given of themselves."
Lt. David Hewitt of New Hampshire's fish and game department added a geography lesson to the three-year search: "There are many areas in the state of New Hampshire where no one has placed a footprint in tens and tens of years."
Ernest F. Imhoff is a former assistant managing editor for The Evening Sun and The Sun.