On Saturday July 19th, several people around the Lake Placid Airport witnessed the final moments of a small plane as it attempted a landing. The single-engine Mooney may have stalled, spiraling 200 feet to the ground before bursting into flames. It will be some time before the NTSB releases its findings. Investigators have already been to the scene and the plane has been removed from the crash site, just 40 feet from the River Road. This tragic event that took the lives of three people drew comparisons to a crash that occurred in the same vicinity 25 years ago.
On the March 1, 1989, pilot Paul Ffield departed from the Lake Clear airport for a very short flight to the Lake Placid airport in his twin engine Beech Baron N1729Q. He was forced to abort a landing at Lake Placid, just as happened last week, but in this case the cause was poor weather. It was believed Mr. Ffield turned to the south but no other landing attempt was observed. Lake Placid Airport manager and pilot Steve Short went airborne just a couple hours later to look for the plane. He returned without success, finding no sign of the plane or an Emergency Locating Transmitter (ELT) signal.
The search continued on March 2nd, with air assets deployed from the Civil Air Patrol, Air National Guard, New York State Police and the New York State Forest Rangers. The Forest Rangers also organized a ground search with veteran Ranger Gary Hodgson acting as Incident Commander. Establishing a finite search area was difficult. Mr. Ffield was familiar with the area and may have had enough fuel for 5 hours of flight time. He had indicated prior to departing Lake Clear that if the weather prevented a landing at Lake Placid he would return to Lake Clear for an instrument landing.
“A lot of people are calling now and saying they heard him yesterday” Ranger Hodgson was quoted as saying in an article in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise at the time. Investigations focused on sightings in an attempt to narrow down the ground search area. A map provided to me by a retired ranger shows where these sightings occurred. They were clustered around the Cascade Ski Center outside of Lake Placid where an observer believed a plane circled. The pilot may have been following State Route 73 as a navigational aid because of the poor weather. Cascade Mountain itself seemed a likely possibility as it rises to over 4,000 feet just a few miles from the airport.
Hope was still high for the pilot’s safe return because of his experience as a pilot and general resourcefulness. Between 8 and 9 P.M. on March 2nd, the command post received three separate reports from commercial pilots flying across the area who had picked up the signal of an ELT, which are designed to allow searchers to hone in on a crash site. Late at night ground searchers attempted to pinpoint its location. Forest Ranger Doug Bissonette went to the Cascade Ski Center and was able to detect a weak signal in the direction of Lake Placid using a hand held locating antennae. Forest Rangers spent another hour attempting to find the point of origin, when at 11P.M. they located the plane emitting the emergency signal. It was a plane idly parked at the Lake Placid airport and not from the missing Beech Baron. The ELT giving off the erroneous signal was deactivated.
After compiling sightings and analyzing where and when they occurred , a reasonable sized land search area was established for March 3rd. “We do have one positive location which we are going to check out by both air and ground search,” Forest ranger Frank Dorchak was quoted by the Watertown Daily Times as saying. Hopes for a find still rested primarily with the air resources. However, searchers were concerned about their ability to detect a downed white plane in snow covered terrain. The day passed without a find and for the third consecutive night, Paul Ffield and his plane remained missing, presumed to have crashed in the wilderness around Lake Placid. Once again temperatures dropped to the single digits and colder at higher elevations.
The search resumed on March 4th, with hundreds of volunteers flooding the command post and creating a challenging situation for the search command. The Civil Air Patrol provided the bulk of the ground searchers, organized into teams and led by Forest Rangers. They were the primary search resource deployed on what was now the fourth day. Freezing rain grounded much of the aviation resources. Trees with broken displaced tops were found around Mirror Lake but further investigation revealed they were the result of recent storm damage and not from the impact of a plane. A spotting scope was also placed at the top of the ski jumps, an innovative idea for a day when aerial searching was not possible. Unfortunately the day ended like the others, without success. The rangers working this search were an experienced group. To this point their search assignments had only resulted in negative information. While discouraging, it was important information and provided direction for the next operational phase. As one area was cleared, crews moved to the next with renewed vigor and hope.
On March 5th weather improved and the search continued. Richard Willauer, a Forest Ranger since 1968, was spending his first day at the search. Rangers Hodgson, Bissonette and Lt. Lou Curth had each already worked 60 hours the first four days of the search as they were the first to respond. Ranger Willauer was directing his young crew through a densely vegetated spruce and balsam area in a grid search pattern on private property located on the River Road in Lake Placid. At 10:45 that morning they found the plane nearly completely concealed from the air by the forest cover, and blended in with the otherwise snow white landscape. Mr. Ffield’s body was found in the cockpit. The Essex County coroner, Roy Parker was reported as saying “Death was instantaneous.”
The search crew that worked that area the day before came very close to reaching the plane that day but stopped unknowingly just before the crash site due to darkness. Ranger Hodgson described the scene to the Watertown Daily Times, “It was pretty abrupt. It doesn’t look like it was much of a glide path. All it was was a little hole. Something happened quick.” State Police provided security over the scene and Mr. Ffield’s sons were allowed into the scene for a private memorial. For five days it seemed as though the plane had flown direct into the Bermuda triangle as no trace of the pilot or plane could be found. Then, just as suddenly it was found. The small plane that crashed last week and tragically took the lives of Fred Kafka, his daughter Kathleen and Reed Phillips, fell to earth a quarter mile from where Paul Ffield perished 25 years before.
Photos: above, map of the search area; middle, Forest Ranger Doug Bissonette (provided by Doug Bissonette); the crash site (courtesy Plattsburgh Press Republican).