TOWNSHIP 3 RANGE 7, Maine — Long abandoned, the hunks of plain gray aluminum lay scattered yards apart among groves of young trees, rocks and small hills, facing an inexorable, certain burial by the canopy of leaves that rains down upon them every fall.
They could be just another pile of metal left behind by scavengers, but some of these metallic objects have U.S. Air Force markings. A small cross is pitched into the ground amid them, and today, a 61-year-old Pennsylvania woman will end a 700-mile journey that, in a sense, began for her about 57 years ago.
Kathy Sullivan will visit a site about 60 miles from the Canadian border where her father, Air Force Capt. George C. Thomas, crashed in an F-86A Sabre on March 10, 1952. Peter Noddin, a Milford man and officer with the Maine Air Museum, will take her there.
“The [Thomas] family first came here last year,” Noddin said Friday. “She didn’t come because, from what I gather, it was a bit too emotional for her. I don’t think she was ready.”
Noddin and some other amateur archaeologists and museum volunteers first visited the crash site, just south of Sherman, in 1999. Affectionately calling themselves wreck chasers, Noddin and the others spend spare time finding and memorializing the 741 military air crash sites documented in Maine from 1918 to 1989.
The group tries to locate crash survivors and family members whenever they memorialize a crash site, but were unable to locate any of Thomas’ family, Noddin said.
“I think that had to do with the fact that it was a very common name and he came from a very urban area,” Noddin said of Thomas.
It was Sullivan who eventually discovered on the Internet a video of the crash site that Noddin or his crew had taken. That led to last year’s trip.
Author of the as-yet unpublished book, “The Cost of Our Freedom: Military Aircraft Accidents in Maine During the Cold War Era,” Noddin learned during his research a decade ago that Thomas, a pilot at what was then the Presque Isle Air Force Base, crashed shortly after takeoff.
A decorated World War II and Korean War veteran, Thomas possibly suffered from hypoxia, a lack of oxygen, caused by defects in his helmet or air-supply system. He began a gradual climb, leading to a stall and steep power dive that ended when the jet struck a ridge, heading nearly straight down, at or above Mach 1, or about 742 mph, according to Noddin’s Web site, mewreckchasers.com.
Thomas was killed instantly.
Though they took away Thomas’ body, Air Force searchers left behind much of the plane’s remains. Many of the parts are discernible as pieces of a jet fighter.“I’ve brought some survivors to sites before,” Noddin said. “It is kind of a weird hobby that I have, but it makes it kind of rewarding. This is history that only a certain number of people are interested in, but being able to help family is good.
“A lot of times these people are just looking for information about their relatives and what really happened. We help them find out.”
Of the 300 Maine crashes that occurred off military bases, Noddin has discovered a few dozen, he said.
Information from The Patriot-News of Harrisburg, Pa., is included in this report.