Monday, December 26, 2011

The Greatest Adirondack Rescue Story Ever?

This week marks the seventy-seventh anniversary of perhaps the greatest Adirondack rescue story ever. With all the inherent dangers of hiking, rock climbing, and navigating treacherous river rapids by canoe or kayak, this incredible incident ironically was unrelated to the most popular mountain pursuits. But when accidents occur while enjoying those pastimes, one factor above all can turn any outing into a life-or-death drama: weather.

In late December, 1935, a Boston-to-Cleveland flight encountered heavy fog and was grounded at Syracuse. Because of bad weather to the west, the pilot was instructed to return to Boston. He was cleared for takeoff at 7:29 p.m., despite heavy snow that had begun falling.

Improved weather was expected as the plane traveled east, but conditions instead worsened, eventually causing the radio to produce mostly static. They circled the Utica airport for about an hour, but heavy snow prevented landing.

Within blizzard-like conditions, the pilot was forced to navigate by compass. The plane veered north of Utica into the southern Adirondacks, fighting a losing battle against extreme conditions. Ice soon clogged the carburetor of the right engine, causing it to fail. The left engine began to fail as well, and they quickly lost altitude. There was no avoiding it: Flight 166 was going down.

Pilot Ernest Dryer, a skilled aviator, was widely known as a “bad-weather” pilot. His instincts took over, and as the plane brushed the treetops, Dryer killed the electricity and slowed the plane’s speed as much as possible. At the last second, he pulled up, forcing the plane to stall, and minimizing the impact of the crash.

In the dark of night, deep in the wilderness several miles south of Piseco Lake in Hamilton County, the plane belly-flopped near the top of a small mountain. In the final seconds, it dropped almost vertically, not unlike the landing of a helicopter. The wings sheared off in the trees, somewhat cushioning the impact.

Ernie, with his co-pilot and brother, Dale; pilot/passenger Jack H. Brown; and passenger Richard W. Hamgood, a federal employee, all climbed from the wreckage and kept their distance for a few minutes, waiting for any sign of fire.

When it was safe, they reentered the cabin and tried the radio, but the master switch had been damaged. Repairs would have to wait until daylight, so they began making plans to spend the night. The weather was terrible, but luckily, the temperature was hovering around the freezing mark. Had it been colder, they could have been in real trouble. Only a couple of light blankets were on board.

The big Curtiss Condor plane had made its inaugural flight just over three weeks earlier. It was a modern marvel, with a 15-passenger capacity and a wingspan of 84 feet. Now, however, that span had been drastically reduced, but the plane’s cabin remained largely intact.

Fashioning a lean-to from the separated wing sections, some saplings, and a parachute, the men built a fire in front of the shelter and settled in for a very cold, uncomfortable night. They were hungry as well, but had only two chocolate bars to sustain them.

Conditions were poor, but Brown and Hamgood were better off than the Dryer brothers, who both suffered injuries in the crash. Dale’s face was badly bruised from slamming against the control panel, and swelling suggested that he had a broken jaw. Ernest was worse, having been thrown violently forward on impact, causing internal injuries and intense hip pain.

Both Dryers were tough men and experienced fliers who had survived near-catastrophes in the past. The Adirondacks would soon provide them with the challenge of a lifetime.

In the outside world, concern already extended from Boston to Cleveland (the Dryers’ hometown). Officials were able to track the plane’s progress past Utica and to the Piseco Lake region. Since they had departed Syracuse with only enough fuel for a few hours of flying, it was widely believed the plane had crashed.

Fears mounted for the fate of the crew. An identical sister ship had crashed in the Catskills in June 1934 while battling similar conditions of dense fog. All seven aboard had been killed when the plane flew into the side of Last Chance Mountain.

On the morning of Saturday, December 29, the Dryer crew went to work on repairing the radio. At Albany airport, several planes were placed at readiness to begin searching, and radio operators worked continuously, trying to make contact with the downed Condor.

Suddenly, shortly after 9 a.m. … elation! An incoming message, repeated three times: “One sixty-six, Albany.” It was the voice of Jack Brown from the missing plane.

“All four safe. We are on a mountain somewhere between Albany and Utica. I don’t know just where, but we are north of our course. Everybody’s all right. Please tell our folks. We crashed up in a group of trees. We have built a fire so you can find us. We are at 2,200 feet altitude.” Static quickly worsened, and radio contact was intermittent throughout the day.

Search crews had already ventured out on foot in the classic “needle-in-a-haystack” scenario, hoping to stumble across the missing plane. Widespread frustration soon set in. Rescue attempts were foiled by continuing sleet in the area, grounding all aircraft. Officials soon realized that attempts to spot the wreckage from the air would be almost futile anyway, considering the amount of fresh snow and sleet that had fallen. And the site description provided by Brown fit at least thirty mountains in the area of the crash.

Ground crews mobilized, heading for the Adirondacks to prepare for a break in the weather. A headquarters of sorts was established at the settlement of Gray, one of few hamlets in the sparsely populated region.

Ham radio operators set up an impromptu communications system, while air stations in Albany, Boston, Buffalo, Montreal, and Newark were joined in a compass network, coordinating in an effort to pinpoint the plane’s location by using earlier data and occasional broadcasts from the downed Condor.

Their best guess was in the vicinity of Ox-bow Lake, just northeast of Piseco Lake, but windy, snowy conditions there prevented any searches, whether by land or air. Then came a worrisome message, the final from the stranded crew: “Our battery is about dead.”

At Poland, Wilmurt, Hoffmeister, and other locations, state police, conservation officers, and civilian volunteers prepared to move. Hoffmeister’s location had particular merit, considering that farmer Bert Kreuzer told of hearing the plane roar overhead Friday night, eventually passing again to the south, followed later by a muffled crashing sound.

Several other residents of the community reported hearing the plane at the same time: it was, after all, an unusual thing for an airplane to fly in their remote location.

There was little anyone could do until the weather cleared, and the downed flight crew was forced to spend a second night on the mountain. The good news was that the storm front was vacating the area. The bad news was that clearing weather brought plunging temperatures. Overnight, it dropped to zero degrees.

On Sunday, more than two dozen planes took to the air, many of them guided and monitored by a wireless operator at Albany Airport. Among them were some Navy planes, along with National Guard from Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York.

Hour after hour they searched, but as darkness encroached and temperatures continued to fall, the effort came up empty. Ironically, Dryer’s amazing job setting the plane down almost vertically had left little evidence of the crash. The landing had kept them alive, but left them almost invisible from the air.

Next week, the conclusion: In a race against death, heroes emerge.

Photo Top: The Curtiss Condor lost in the Adirondacks.

Photo Middle: Dale and Ernest Dryer.

Photo Bottom: Map of the plane’s path north to Piseco Lake.

Lawrence Gooley has authored ten books and dozens of articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. Expanding their services in 2008, they have produced 19 titles to date, and are now offering web design. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

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