Relatives of five business travelers who disappeared following a trip to Vermont 50 years ago this winter hope 2021 brings them a step closer to healing.
"I wonder, 'Is he out there?'" said Frank Wilder of Pennsylvania, who held a 50th anniversary memorial service Jan. 27 in Shelburne, Vermont, to honor the victims of an unsolved plane crash into Lake Champlain.
"With my father, I don't know where he is. Sometimes, you know, I wonder, 'Did he really die?'" he said.
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The remains of Wilder's father, who was also named Frank, are somewhere in the lake. So is wreckage from a crashed plane that has never been found.
George Nikita, Donald Myers, Randy Williams and Kirby Windsor also vanished the evening of Jan. 27, 1971.
"I don't have closure," Wilder said. "I don't think any of the families have closure. Until we actually find the plane, we won't have closure."
The evening of the crash was just before a nasty snowstorm.
The real estate developers from Atlanta had wrapped up their time in Vermont scoping out a possible project in Burlington. Their private, twin-engine corporate jet vanished shortly after takeoff, with no known distress signal sent.
"It's exceptionally unusual for Vermont," said Brian Lindner, a historian who studies aviation disasters.
Lindner said early investigators did find some debris washed up following the plane's disappearance, including an oxygen tank and a wheel.
In the summer of 2014, when renewed efforts launched using sonar and underwater robots, there were still no breakthroughs. However, Lindner said some curious shapes were spotted on the lake bottom.
"So much of it looks like an airplane or airplane parts, but once we send a camera down, we find out it's logs or rocks or something like that," Lindner said.
Past searches have included Vermont State Police, New York State Police, private citizens interested in search and recovery and environmental officials from the Champlain Valley.
Another search is tentatively set for this summer.
Lake Champlain is a large body of water to mount a search in. It is 12 miles wide at its widest point and 400 feet deep at its deepest, according to the Lake Champlain Land Trust. Facts about the lake on the organization’s website also show the body of water is 120 miles long, with 587 miles of shoreline.
"There are still pockets that haven't really been searched or re-searched," Lindner noted.
Barbara Nikitas' uncle, George Nikita, piloted the plane.
"Fifty years is a long time, but some days it seems like yesterday," Nikitas told NECN ahead of the anniversary of the plane's disappearance. "I still hear my grandmother wailing in pain when she heard her son was gone -- it's horrible."
With the half-century mark now here, Nikitas, who lives in California, is asking people from the Champlain Valley if they have any old info from late January of 1971 that could help shrink the search zone.
"We're putting together this one-million-piece puzzle, and every time we get a little piece, it gets us closer to our goal," Nikitas said.
That info could include a recollection of a plane flying low over a childhood address, a flash of light in the sky or finding some metal on the beach the following spring. Whatever it is, the families want to hear it.
They ask anyone with information to email them at email@example.com.
"Any, any, any information is valuable," said Kristina Coffey of Tennessee, who was only three when she hugged her daddy goodbye one last time before his business trip.
Five decades later, Coffey said she now has a motto about the mystery crash that took her father, George Nikita, from her -- and the other men from their families.
"'You can't find peace til you find all the pieces,''" Coffey recited. "I'm not at peace -- I'm really not. I'm just not going to stop searching."
During that 50th anniversary lakeshore memorial service, which Frank Wilder streamed live to loved ones of the crash victims across the country, the virtual group prayed for answers.
"We'll always wonder," Wilder said of what happened 50 years ago.
After so many years of not knowing what happened to the jet, the families of the men onboard are optimistic that 2021 will finally bring a new dawn of healing.
"I'm so hopeful," Coffey told NECN. "I'm so hopeful. I am."