In the weeks and months following the amazing story of survival in the Adirondacks in January 1935, when the four-man crew of a downed Curtis Condor plane were rescued from the clutches of death, further details surfaced in the media. The two uninjured passengers had considered striking off to the south in search of help. Said one of their rescuers, Leonard Partello: “They would never have come out alive. They would have had to go fifteen miles through heavy snow without food. It couldn’t be done.”
The ultimate blame for the incident was placed on the company. No qualified dispatcher was on hand in Syracuse to authorize the flight in terrible weather, which was allowed after a call to the Newark office. That near-fatal decision was countered by the great flying skills of Ernest Dryer.
For years, Ernie had built a reputation in New York State and elsewhere as a superb mail pilot, that group of men who were true pioneers of flight in the early days of aviation. The same informal creed of delivery in any weather by ground carriers was pursued by air carriers as well.
By 1938, American Airlines employed 203 pilots for mail delivery, but when the service was initiated in 1927, there were only four. One of them was Ernest Dryer.
When it was announced that Dryer’s flight had been lost in blizzard conditions in the Adirondacks, Buffalo’s chief radio operator Bob Hale said, “It’s an old trick of Ernie’s to bob up smiling in some pasture, somewhere.” One reporter noted that Ernie had “figured in half a dozen sensational emergency landings.” He was that good.
It was no great coincidence that there were two Dryers on Flight 166. They were best known and admired in their hometown of Cleveland, where the exploits of the flying Dryer family had already become legendary.
Ernie Dryer ran away from home to join the army in 1917 when he was only 15 years old, and learned to fly at Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas. During the 1920s, he bought a Jenny (a bi-wing) and barnstormed on his own before joining the Gates Flying Circus, touted as the world’s most daring fliers. He also managed Stewart Aircraft Company at the Cleveland Airport.
In 1926, with brothers Dale, Lewis, and Thomas, Ernie formed the 4D Air Service. A fifth family member, Helen, joined them as a parachute jumper. Competitions, record attempts, and stunts were common in the early days of flying, receiving heavy media attention, and the Dryers were involved in all three. There were many close calls, but the entire group was fearless.
In 1929, while stunt flying over Cleveland, they narrowly avoided crashing in the city square. A month later, Dale added to his daredevil legend. At the time, the brothers were involved in a team effort to refuel an endurance plane in the air, keeping it aloft for record time. The next day’s headline read, “Dryer brothers execute incredible airborne feat.”
That could have been an overstatement, but you be the judge. The endurance plane named Buffalo Evening News suffered weather damage to its stabilizer, almost certain to kill the record attempt. But the Dryers had a plan, insane as it seemed. Ernie piloted his craft to 10,000 feet, positioning it barely 50 feet above the larger ship. Dale lowered a rope ladder, which the men managed to grab and pull into the endurance plane. And that was the easy part.
Ernie then positioned his plane beneath the larger ship, and the 65-foot ladder was lowered to the open cockpit of Ernie’s plane. Dale grabbed the ladder, and one to two miles above the earth, he freed himself from the rear seat and began climbing. After reaching the Buffalo, Dale, an excellent mechanic as well as a pilot, repaired the plane and parachuted back to earth.
The plane-to-plane transfer was also part of the Dryer brothers’ stunt routine. Besides Dale and Helen, Lewis was also touted as an “exhibition parachute jumper.” Their aerial act was a big hit in the Midwest.
In 1929, Ernie signed on with Colonial Airways, wearing the classic goggles and leather helmet and flying mail in open-cockpit planes from Cleveland to Boston, with stops in between. On at least two occasions, he was forced to bail out by parachute.
At Dunkirk, New York in 1930, Dryer’s plane was forced down by heavy fog. He landed in a field and the plane overturned, but he jumped out just before impact, sustaining only minor bruises.
At Albany airport in 1933, as he was banking to land, a small plane flying without authorization struck Dryer’s larger craft, which had mail and five passengers aboard. He managed to maintain control and land safely. The smaller plane landed safely as well.
After surviving the Adirondack ordeal in 1935, Ernie went on to great success as a pilot. He served from 1942–1946 in the air force during World War II, flying ferry service in the Atlantic and Pacific. At the time, four Dryer brothers were toiling for the military. Dale was also flying the ferry routes; Lewis was an army test pilot; and Thomas, another American Airlines pilot, was serving with the Air Transport Command.
In 1943, Ernie was promoted to major. Six months later, his brother, Dale, perished at the controls of a plane that went down near Centerville, Tennessee, killing all ten people on board.
In 1945, Ernie set a new speed record, flying from Moscow to Washington in just over thirty-five hours while urgently ferrying military negotiators back and forth. He was also among the pilots with Harry Truman at the Potsdam Conference. Dryer was reactivated from 1950–1953 during the Korean Conflict, finally retiring from the military as a lieutenant colonel in the Air Reserve.
He continued to fly commercially. In 1959, because of bad weather, Ernie’s plane was diverted from Idlewild Airport (now JFK) in New York City. His landing at Newark marked the first time a jetliner landed there (scheduled landings didn’t begin until 1961).
Ernie continued flying as a senior jet pilot, traveling from coast to coast until he reached the mandatory retirement age of 60 in 1962. He passed away in December 1982, a Cleveland pilot who traveled the world, delivered New York’s mail, and became a permanent part of Adirondack lore.
Photos: Above, the Dryer brothers took part in this 1919 attempt on the continuous-flight record. The plane above is refueling the plane below. Middle: Headline generated when Ernest piloted a plane while his passenger, Dale, climbed a rope ladder to another plane. Below, one of several headlines generated by the daring exploits of Ernest Dryer. This particular incident took place at Dunkirk, New York.
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.