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The forgotten plane crash

October 23, 2010

Every once in a while somebody like me and even the prestigious Adirondack Life (the magazine recently received many awards at the International Regional Magazine Association conference) write about some of the many plane crashes that have occurred in the Adirondacks over the past 60 or 70 years.

But you know what? We all seem to miss the crash carrying a guy and his beautiful 18-year-old daughter; a guy who was probably one of the most famous men in the Adirondacks at that time.

Halloween night 1958, Julian Reiss and his daughter Patti were heading for the Saranac Lake Airport at Lake Clear when they ran into a violent cold front with sleet and snow flurries and the plane was forced down on the side of Moose Mountain about 16 miles from the airport.

Mr. Reiss, who was flying his own plane and had been a pilot since 1944, had picked up his daughter at her college near Philadelphia to bring her home. Mr. Reiss was age 59 at the time, his daughter was 18. Neither was injured.

Here are excerpts from the Enterprise story of Nov. 3, 1958:

"The plane, borne down by the ice on its wings and propeller and with its radio directional instrument functioning improperly because of the ice and the storm Friday evening, fortuitously landed in a relatively open space on the mountainside."

The story described in detail about the plane wings shearing off tree tops, flipping the plane on its back and breaking off the tail sectionpicking up the Enterprise story:

"It was dark when the crash occurred and Mr. Reiss and Patricia at first did not know how high above the ground they were suspended upside down. They soon realized they were close to the ground and after freeing themselves from their shoulder harnesses, plugged up the holes in the cabin and spent the night in the plane."

The story then tells how they found their way out in the morning by climbing hills and finally zeroing in on Whiteface Mountain, crossing the Moose Pond trail without realizing it and then finding it again and following it to the Averyville section of Lake Placid.

Patti told me this week that when they reached the Wescott farm and Mrs. Eleanor Wescott answered the door, her father asked, without identifying himself, if he might use the phone. Mrs. Wescott said, "No you can't, this is the search headquarters for Mr. Reiss whose plane has crashed." Well, I guess Mrs. Wescott probably nearly keeled over when she realized she was talking to Mr. Reiss. She gave them food, they called home, then went home; Dr. George Hart met them there, examined them and declared them both to be in good condition.

The newspaper story goes on: "Julian Reiss, Northland Motors executive was back at work today (Monday) and his attractive eighteen-year-old daughter, Patricia, is planning to return to school tomorrow following their miraculous escape from death and serious injury Friday night when their plane was forced down on the side of Moose Mountain." Mr. Reiss was also the founder of Santa Claus Village at the North Pole on Whiteface Mountain and Old McDonald's Farm in Lake Placid and a doer of kind deeds wherever he went.


A bizarre twist

A few days later, on Nov. 7, the Enterprise carried another story about the plane crash. Mr. Reiss's son, Air Force Lt. Peter Reiss hiked into the site on Sunday to see the plane and the crash site and when he went back again on Wednesday someone had stolen the engine and radio instrument panel. The story never mentions the model of the plane but a reward of $500 was offered by Mr. Reiss to find the thief. It was a new $6000 Lycoming 260 horsepower motor and the radio equipment was valued at $1000.

Now along with the miracle of the Reiss' surviving that spectacular plane crash is the incredible story of how the thief got that 450 pound engine out of the plane and back to his home in another state in just a couple of days and how quickly the state police were able to find him.

This all came to my attention when Jerry Strack called me to see if I could help find any stories about the accident. His friend Patti Reiss Brooks, the girl in the crash, was writing the story for an anthology of short stories. As usual Michele Tucker, curator of the Adirondack Room of the Saranac Lake Free Library, came up with the Enterprise clippings and e-mailed them to Mrs. Brooks.

There is a strange, detailed story about the thief and the missing motor and deserves the space of an entire column stay tuned until next week.



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