|Solving the Spednic Lake Mystery “Navy Aircraft” Crash
An Adventure in Armchair Aviation Archeology
|I know that Jim Chichetto meant me no harm when he handed me a copy of a 1960 newspaper clipping in 1998 and told me the story of a research project that he and several others had been working on. It turned out to be one of the most extensive, time consuming and aggravating research projects that I have ever worked on in this hobby. It is a complicated story of some shoddy research done by other researchers, that Jim and I took as gospel, a simple piece of poor newspaper reporting, numerous theories and research dead ends, and a few chance breaks in my investigation that finally connected the dots and solved this mystery.
The story begins with a Bangor Daily News article on Monday, November 28, 1960 with the headline “Men Seeking Hunter Find Plane Wreck”. A hunter from Pennsylvania had left a camp on Lambert Lake near Forest City on Friday morning and not returned. He was found by a Maine Warden Service aircraft Saturday on the shore of nearby Spednic Lake. The story states that “Plane wreckage sighted near where the hunter was located is believed to be that of a Navy plane that crashed in the area more than 10 years ago”. It goes on to state “Sighting of the wreckage touched off concern until Warden Supervisor Lloyd Clark said he believed that the wreckage was that of a Navy plane that crashed in the area around 10 years ago”. A follow-up article the next day gives a few more details:
Navy Plane Wreckage Identified
“Parts of a plane wreckage found Saturday in the Topsfield area has been identified as being part of a Navy plane that crashed in the area 10 years ago. Warden Supervisor Lloyd Clark of Calais said wardens found bits of wreckage Saturday when they were searching for a hunter in the heavily wooded area.
Clark said most of the wreckage had been removed years ago and that all that remained was part of a wing and some other parts of the plane. The warden supervisors [sic] said numbers on the wing of the craft established that it was the Navy plane lost almost a decade ago. Naval authorities Clark said, had removed most of the plane. Apparently, the remaining wing and other small pieces were overlooked, Clark noted.”
Jim related several facts gathered by two other researchers: The Bangor Daily News reporter, Warden Supervisor Clark, all other Wardens involved in the search and the Warden Pilot were all deceased, and no U.S. Navy crash had yet been associated with this area yet, although interviews had indicated that it was a TBM.
This opened up several possibilities to be tracked down:
-An early Cold War era USN crash that was not yet in our files
-A post WW II navy type aircraft in civilian service
-A WW II Navy aircraft, perhaps from one of the nearby contract flying schools
-A Canadian Navy or “Navy type” RCAF aircraft like a Ventura or Hudson from one of the nearby training fields
Since I had very little location information to go on, a ground search for the wreckage was out of the question. That left records searches and interviews with locals as possible investigation techniques. Over the next few years I did large amounts of both.
Unable to associate a USN crash from my own research with this area, I paid a professional military records researcher for a list of USN crashes in Maine between 1945 and 1955. The long awaited report arrived and did, in fact, include several accidents that were not already in my files, but none anywhere near this region of Maine. Detailed research into WW II USN and Canadian mishaps in the area also came up empty. There were several RCAF Ventura and Hudson crashes in the general region, but all were tracked down and none could have plausibly been sighted during the search near Spednic and Lambert Lakes.
A freedom of information request for records related to the search actually yielded copies of the handwritten reports of the two wardens involved in the ground search and the warden pilot. This is unusual because the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife almost always comes back indicating that they don't keep such historical records. The Warden Pilot was Malcolm “Mac” Maheu out of Greenville, a well known figure in Maine aviation history and the pilot who first located the wreckage of the Greenville B-52C crash in January 1963. He had passed away in 1995. While there was a fairly detailed record of the search and rescue of the lost hunter, there was no mention of finding aircraft wreckage. It escaped me at the time, but an important detail in the reports is the fact that Warden Supervisor Lloyd Clark was not on the scene at any time during the search.
Various phone and e-mail contacts with guides and other locals in the area turned up no solid leads. Some remembered the lost hunter well, as he had hunted in the area for several years and many remembered the story of him getting lost in great detail. However, all I could glean about an aircraft wreckage was second hand oral history about one or two different crashes in the general area. One contact related a rumor that he had heard about a “TBM or similar aircraft” that had crashed near Tomah Mountain in the 1950s. There are actually two Tomah Mountains and a Tomah Ridge in the area.
A coworker of mine that had grown up in nearby Forest City told me an intriguing story about walking about a half mile off the paved road around 1952 to a fairly fresh crash site. He was pretty sure that it was off the Forest City Road and south of the road. He recalled being told that it was a military plane.
A Dam Tender's Tale
The name of a Dam Tender at the foot of East Grand Lake in the 1950s turned into a “hot” lead that occupied a lot of time to track down. He told me about a search for a missing aircraft in the area in the fall of 1954 or 1955. He said that there had been an oil slick at the dam for several days, but the aircraft was never found. This rang some bells with me because in my files is a newspaper clipping about a missing F-84F Thunderstreak jet fighter out of Langley AFB, Virginia that was thought to have disappeared over the coast of Maine. Could the Spedic mystery wreckage actually be washed up pieces of a USAF fighter on a lake shore? This lead prompted me to call in some favors from Craig Fuller of AAIR. A search of the microfilm records revealed reports of the two other F-84 crashes out of Langley on the specific day of the “Missing F-84F” article, but no report of a third F-84 going missing or crashing anywhere. This was most likely the result of an overdue aircraft that landed at an unplanned airfield with minor trouble and a rush to meet a deadline by a newspaper reporter.
A Lucky Break in the Case
A few months later I was conducting a phone interview with a retired Maine Forest Ranger about the Depot Lake mystery RCAF bomber crash. He knew very little about the Depot incident other than some vague references that I had already heard. I began talking about some other research projects and I noted that he had the same last name as the Game Warden that lead the ground search at Lambert Lake in 1960. It turned out that he was his brother and contrary to my previous information, his brother was alive and well living just down the street from him! The retired Ranger had also been present at Lambert Lake that day and contrary to the official report, he and not another Game Warden had flown spotter for Mac Maheu that Saturday afternoon. He related in great detail the brief air search and serious mistakes that had been made by the lost hunter. He knew nothing about any aircraft wreckage and was adamant that no such sighting had been made while he was flying as spotter.
A call to his brother, who lead the missing hunter search revealed that no aircraft wreckage was sighted during the actual search operation. This changed the whole picture of what happened on that Saturday afternoon in November 1960. Apparently Mac Maheu had sighted the mystery wreckage after he had cleared from Lambert Lake and was en route back to Greenville. It would follow that the wreckage was reported by telephone to Supervisor Lloyd Clark, who in turn discussed it with the reporter as a point of interest in the search story.
This turned the investigation in a whole new direction. After obtaining weather records for the day of the search, I plotted two courses from Lambert Lake back to Greenville. One was a dead reckoning, straight line course and the other was a ground contact route that followed major highways. I began plotting known military aircraft wrecks that would have had wreckage present in 1960 nearby each of these routes. The indirect route passed near one WW II RCAF sight that was unlikely to be visible from the air at the time. The direct route passed two F-86 crash sites and NO! That could not be.... It passed very near the crash site of RCN Sea Fury TF 997 which disappeared in 1950 and was not officially located until 1968. Was it possible that Lieutenant Mervin Hare's missing naval fighter was located eight tears earlier and bureaucratic bungling prevented it from being properly communicated to the Canadian military? That seemed a little far fetched, but a post-it note with that theory went up “on the board” along with each of the other possible military wrecks along the route.
Late one warm summer evening, I was reviewing the several comments about the “TBM” crash near Tomah Mountain. With all three Tomah Mountains/Ridges along Mac Maheu's likely route out of the Lambert Lake area that day in 1960, I went through the exercise of plotting all three peaks in longitude and latitude. Then while scanning several old Civil Air Patrol (Scott AFB) crash wreckage locator lists I stumbled onto a familiar looking set of coordinates. Could it really be that the answer to this mystery had been on the wall next to my “aviation” desk the whole time?
Navy Aircraft of Amphibian Aircraft?
In 1948, a one year old Republic RC-3 Seabee amphibian aircraft took off and mushed into the trees on a small knoll near Simon Pond in Codyville, south of Route 6. The aircraft was damaged, but was retrieved, repaired and was still in civil registry as late as 2005. Part of one wing and several other miscellaneous pieces of wreckage were left behind during the salvage operation.
This location turns out to be relatively close to the Tomah Mountains and could very well be the crash site visited by my coworker in 1952, if he was mistaken about it being south of the Forest City Road and walked in south of nearby Route 6 instead.
While interviewing about other incidents, I have located another retired Game Warden, who along with a second Warden Pilot were flown to this crash site aboard a USAF helicopter on Sunday, November 27, 1960 and lowered into the brush by winch to inspect the wreckage. There never was any doubt that the “unique” wing structure was that of a Republic Seabee.
Somehow, in the process of repeating the story and perhaps due to a little news reporting error, an “amphibian” or “seaplane” became reported as a “Navy” plane. A very simple answer to end a very complicated and time consuming research project. But as Jim Chichetto always said, “that's what makes this hobby so interesting!”