ST. DAVID, Maine — On a March day in 1966, an F106 interceptor jet took off from Loring Air Force Base to run a routine, Cold War-era mission.
That mission ended minutes later somewhere in the central Aroostook County woods after a mechanical failure caused the plane to lose all hydraulic control and crash nose-first into the ground in Caswell Plantation after the pilot ejected from his craft.
Close to four decades later, Peter Noddin, of the Maine Aviation Historical Society and self-described “wreck chaser,” is on the hunt for what’s left of that aircraft.
The St. David resident has already located and documented more than 35 military aviation crash sites around the state and on Saturday said the F106 site has been a pet project for awhile.
“I’ve been looking for that site for a couple of years,” Noddin said as he drove to the map coordinates he hoped to search over the weekend. “Today there is an anomaly on the aerial photos I want to check out that looks suspiciously like damage that could be caused by a crash.”
When a 70-foot-long, 34,500-pound plane like the F106 hits the ground at full speed, it is going to leave a distinctive mark, visible even after several decades, Noddin said.
“Plus, when a sizable aircraft goes down in the wilderness, the frost is going to push wreckage out of the ground for years,” he added.
According to Noddin, there is a lot of wreckage out there.
“Between 1919 and 1989, there were 741 military aircraft involved in accidents in the state of Maine,” he wrote on his website. “There have been 245 American, Canadian and British Commonwealth aircrew that lost their lives in Maine forests, fields and waters [and] several hundred more were injured.”
Of those, arguably the most famous and well-known is the B-52 crash site near Greenville, but Noddin said the hundreds others on the ground are just as deserving of discovery and documentation.
Turning off Rt 1A on Saturday down a side road leading to a dirt road that, in turn, lead to an ever-narrowing logging road, Noddin slowly drove along, consulting his topographical maps and handheld GPS unit.
“This looks about right if we head in from here,” he said, parking next to a dense stand of second growth timber and underbrush. “I want to hike into a small pond that could have been created by the crash crater and look for wreckage around there.”
Noddin had already eliminated several other possible crash sites on previous trips and said he uses a combination of military crash reports, news accounts, witness testimonies and aerial maps to pinpoint the sites.
All can be notoriously inaccurate at times, he said, which is why members of the aviation historical society scour the Maine woods to identify the actual crash sites.
About 15 minutes of tramping through the woods and some wetland brought Noddin to the pond and possible F106 site, but after about a half hour of scouring the surrounding woodland for debris with no success, he said that site, too, could be eliminated.
“It’s amazing how easy it is to spot the wreckage, once you know what you are looking for,” he said. “It’s aluminum or stainless [steel] so it will still be shiny at times.”
Immediately after most of the crashes, military personnel were on the scene to collect large and potentially sensitive pieces of the aircraft, but the smaller debris was often left behind.
“The biggest thing you are likely to see is the size of a coffee table,” Noddin said. “And a lot of times rocks or moss can fool you into thinking you are seeing airplane parts.”
The next stop Saturday was a spot about a half mile from the pond in a section of woods between two recently logged plots of land.
Easy walking on solid forest ground soon gave way to soggy wetland that threatened to suck off boots with every step.
Tentatively feeling around for firmer footing with his walking stick, Noddin headed toward higher ground as he skirted around a boggy pond.
Using the combined information from modern GPS technology and his old-time compass skills, Nodding zig-zagged through the woods until he came out into the clearcut and began to overlap with an area he had searched the previous week.
Still no indication of any wreckage.
“I guess I can eliminate this site, too,” he said. “But when you are looking for crash sites, eliminating an area is just as important. Sometimes you are lucky, sometimes you are not.”
All of the sites in Maine are on private land and Noddin said wreck chasers learn early the importance of landowner relations.
“When it comes to the Air Force, once they leave a wreck for good, it belongs to the landowner,” he said. “The Navy is a little different and they claim ownership of the wreckage in perpetuity as part of maritime shipwreck law.”
Either way, Noddin said he will not set foot on any land until securing permission from the landowner directly.
The vast majority, he said, are more than willing to allow access. Some already know of the crash sites while others are a bit surprised.
“I had one guy who was really spooked when I asked him about the site on his land,” Noddin said. “I figured he would not let me on, but he said, ‘Oh no, you can go and look all you want, I just don’t want to talk about it.’”
Noddin said he is often contacted by family members of crewmen involved in crashes and asked to help locate the sites.
“Sometimes — not often — you do find personal effects at the crash sites,” he said. “It is sort of aviation etiquette that you try to track down family members to return them.”
That same etiquette mandates all other items associated with a crash are left where they are found, he said.
“The Maine woods are actually really kind to debris,” Noddin said. “Because of the shade under the trees, the paint is still on the debris and there are often legible markings or writing on it.”
That’s the case with the 1965 crash site of a KC 135 refueling tanker that crashed just after takeoff on Jan 4 from the 42nd air refueling squadron at Loring.
Within minutes of becoming airborne, Noddin said, a missing bolt caused the No. 3 engine on the plane came loose and swung up in front of the wing.
The plane rolled to the left, and the force produced by the pilot attempting to regain control caused both the No. 3 and 4 engines to completely separate from the wing.
The plane hit the ground at about a 90-degree angle north of the runway in a potato field, its right wing digging a deep trench into the earth before coming to rest in pieces in the woods about two miles from the base.
Evidence gathered at the time showed one hatch was jettisoned before the crash, but none of the six crewmen were able to escape and were all killed upon impact, Noddin said.
Decades later, debris still litters the area.
Chunks of twisted aluminum that once formed part of the fuselage are testament to the force of the crash. Sections of the wing lay strewn on the ground, caution signs and painted lettering still clearly visible on the metal.
“This is a very special piece,” Noddin said, pointing to a small section that still bore blue paint. “We know from where this piece would have been on the aircraft and how it was painted, this would have been the middle of the Air Force star.”
Noddin first visited the KC135 site in 2004 and said he’s been back to the 18-acre site about five times.
Noddin has been looking for crash sites since the mid 1990s and said his fellow wreck chasers form a sort of clan that wants to protect these sites.
“We want people to visit these sites and respect them,” he said. “But at the same time, we have seen some [crash] items show up on eBay.”
Noddin said he is always on the lookout for information on other crash sites around the state and invites people to take a look at his website at www.mewreckchasers.com/index.html
“Who knows,” he said. “Someone may read this story and have just the piece of information I need to find that F106 site.”