The Wreckfinder

No plane crash is too small or too old for Gary Patric Macha

"Maybe he was trying to make that notch in the ridge," says Macha. "He almost made it."

In mid-February, Macha spoke at the Sea Country Community Center in Laguna Niguel before a crowd of 30 who braved a steady rainstorm. He sold autographed copies of his book and displayed bits of aircraft he'd pulled from sites. He showed crash slides and told crash stories for nearly an hour. One of the slides shows Macha standing near wreckage on which someone, probably one of the victims' relatives, had spray-painted "I love you DAD."

Macha's book says there are more than 1,400 such crash sites in the state. More than 70 of those are in Orange County, and most of those are obscured under the thick chaparral of the Santa Ana Mountains.

The book itself is a surprisingly compelling read considering it's nothing more than a long list of laconic statements about each crash site:

9/17/62. Ercoupe N93758 crashed on Trabuco Mesa, killing both persons onboard. Though unmarked, this wreck is still visible today.

2/11/69. Lockheed SP-2E No. 131487 of the U.S. Navy Reserve crashed while doing touch-and-gos at USMC Air Station El Toro. Heavy clouds obscured the Santa Ana Mountains at the time of the accident. All seven crewmen were killed on impact at the 2,800-foot level of Santiago Canyon. Most of this wreck has been removed, but large amounts of unmarked debris remain.

Sometimes, one entry will bleed into the next:

3/31/67. Cessna 172 N7172T crashed in bad weather at the 4,200-foot level of east Santiago Peak, killing two persons onboard. Wreckage is marked and visible.

4/16/67. Navion F N91734 crashed and burned at the 4,500-foot level of Santiago Peak, killing all four men onboard. This was a Civil Air Patrol search aircraft engaged in overflying the recently discovered Cessna 172 that crashed on 3/31/67. Wreckage located on east slope of Santa Ana Mountains just NW of the C-172.

"I'm sorry to say that my book—even though I didn't provide directions —has helped speed the removal of some wrecks," Macha says. "There was a very old version of the B-17 bomber at Idyllwild that has been completely raked clean."

Macha and his wife have been inspecting the Corsair site for nearly two hours now. In that time, not one of the many passing hikers and mountain bikers has come over to ask what this guy with the metal detector and archaeology flags is doing just off the main trail. Macha's not surprised. In his previous four trips up here, he says, a passerby approached him just once.

But now he has found something—a three-inch-long piece of twisted strapping covered in midnight-blue paint. Rubbing away the dirt reveals an inspection stamp. A closer look reveals an M, then the number 72 and the number 32.

"Let's hang on to this guy for kicks," says Macha, but it's clear the piece tells him nothing new. Just about every one of the thousands of pieces that makes up a plane carries an inspection stamp. The identity of the plane itself remains unknown.

Macha didn't find the Corsair data plate, but he plans to head back to the site soon. He has asked the Laguna Beach Historical Society whether anyone recalls the time a Marine Corps Corsair crashed into the Top of the World, but so far, he hasn't heard anything.

For now, the story of the Corsair and the identity of its pilot will remain unknown. Macha intends to start all over again in Aliso Canyon, looking for the dive-bombers that brought him to Laguna in the first place.

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