Remembering Pilot Knob
50 years ago, deadliest plane crash in Adirondacks happened near Lake George
It was a cold, rainy mid-November night 50 years ago, and state Forest Ranger George Stec was talking to three young men who stopped by his house to report seeing a wolf around Queensbury’s Butler Pond when the phone rang. It was around 8:30 p.m.
“It was the Sheriff’s Department and the dispatcher told me, ‘George, we think there’s been a plane crash on Pilot Knob,'” he recalled.
The next few days were a blur for Stec, his fellow forest rangers, police officers and volunteers who worked to recover the remains of the 14 people who died in the worst airplane crash in the history of the Adirondacks.
Eleven passengers and three crew members on Mohawk Airlines Flight 411, en route to Warren County Airport from Albany Airport, perished the night of Nov. 19, 1969, when the plane they were in crashed into a cliff on Pilot Knob Mountain, just east of Lake George’s eastern shore.
The twin-engine turboprop airliner had just dropped passengers off in Albany and was finishing the second leg of its journey from New York City’s LaGuardia Airport when it inexplicably turned into a cliff on the north side of the mountain, bursting into flames after it hit the rock wall.
With Stec’s state-issued pickup truck loaded with gear for a rescue, he and dozens of other would-be helpers arrived near what is now the Buck Mountain trailhead. Flames from the remnants of the plane were visible near the top of the mountain. The cold rain turned to snow as fellow rangers Jim DeLaire, Lance Killmeier and state Trooper R.J. Kubricky led a rescue party to the peak.
They were met with whiteout conditions and buffeting winds. But they were able to find the smoldering wreckage, aided by a ranger who went to the top of Prospect Mountain, across the lake, and radioed directions to them.
Killmeier, who spent 30 years as a ranger in the Fort Ann area before retiring in 1991, said he and the others in that initial rescue party quickly determined there were no survivors. The fuselage and cabin smoldered against a cliff for hours.
“We immediately went over the scene. It was clear there were no survivors,” Killmeier said.
But with little to do in the dark atop a remote, roadless mountain in a snowstorm, the team pitched a tent to wait for dawn and the massive recovery effort that would begin the next day, followed by an investigation that would last weeks.
Pilot Knob Mountain is a 2,163-foot-high peak, part of the ridge that runs along the east side of the lake from French Mountain to Anthony’s Nose in Putnam.
In the early days of commercial air service, Warren County Airport and other airports around New York and the Northeast were serviced by Mohawk Airlines, a small outfit. Mohawk was sold to Allegheny Airlines in 1972, after one of the company’s planes crashed into a home in Albany, killing 17 people.
The company’s flights were a quick and easy way for local residents to get to New York City, Boston and Detroit to catch connecting flights around the world.
Flight 411 left New York City with Capt. Raymond Hourihan at the controls, 44 passengers and three crew members on board. It dropped off 33 passengers in Albany and around 8 p.m. left Albany for Queensbury. The passengers included local residents returning from vacations and business trips, and three men from France headed to a business meeting at Kamyr in Glens Falls the next day.
Later, stories of people who had planned to be on the plane were reported. A Whitehall family whose relatives were supposed to have taken the plane didn’t learn until early the following morning that they had decided to drive from Minnesota instead of fly.
It was about 8:20 p.m. that police started to receive calls from the Kattskill Bay and Pilot Knob areas of an explosion and possible plane crash. Air traffic controllers at Warren County Airport realized the pilot of a plane who had reported being about 12 miles south of the Queensbury airport was no longer responding to radio broadcasts.
Witnesses reported the sound of a low-flying aircraft over the lake near Kattskill Bay and a loud crash.
When the sun rose the morning of Nov. 20, the men atop the mountain were in nearly a foot of new snow, facing the daunting task of removing the remains of those who died and assisting state and federal investigators who were trying to determine why the plane crashed. Dozens more joined them.
Stec, a U.S. Marine who served in Vietnam, said the rangers were tasked with removing the remains to be returned to family members for burial.
They used snowmobiles and a tracked vehicle, approaching from the less steep east side, off Sly Pond Road, to get up and down the mountain.
This was well before the days of cellphones, and even before small portable radios; the radio that Stec carried was powered by 11 D-cell batteries.
A cabin atop the mountain, the remains of which still sit near the crash site, served as a de facto command post, its wood stove fired up through the ordeal.
“We were very lucky that cabin was right there. We had a nice dry place to warm up,” he said.
The plane’s wreckage stayed “consolidated” in one spot on the mountain, a corner of steep rock. But the spot was difficult to reach, and those taking part in the recovery needed the aid of a State Police helicopter.
The human remains were all removed on Nov. 20.
“It was a very hard couple of days,” Killmeier recalled.
Stec said dozens of volunteers helped those who had to go up and down from the crash site, and many residents of the area offered assistance, such as use of horses from a farm nearby.
The helicopter also helped remove much of the wreckage and brought federal investigators to and from the crash sight.
The plane had been carrying a large quantity of U.S. Postal Service mail that was also destroyed.
“People made a big deal about the mail back then,” said Stec, the father of state Assemblyman Dan Stec.
A mystery as to why
The plane hit trees on the northwest slope of the mountain, about 200 feet below the peak, then slammed into a rock cliff before tumbling about 35 feet and becoming lodged between trees and catching fire. While it was a rainy night, residents of the area said the tops of the mountains on the east side of the lake were visible, not socked in by clouds.
The National Transportation Safety Board investigated the crash for months, and on Aug. 20, 1970, issued a 42-page report. It concluded “severe turbulence and wind shear” forced the plane into the side of the mountain as the pilot reversed course for an approach to Runway 19 at the airport.
Hourihan had overshot the runway, flown past the airport and was turning around for another approach to the airfield. But Mohawk Airlines had banned the path he took and the procedures he used in turning over Lake George.
It wasn’t known why Hourihan made that fateful decision, which put him near the mountains that ring the lake amid a storm. The plane’s data recorder survived the crash, but the voice recorder did not.
Turbulence had been forecast as light between Albany and Glens Falls, but the mountains along the lake are notorious for crosswinds during storms.
There were no radio transmissions or indications before the crash that the plane was experiencing problems. A number of possible reasons for the choice of course were discussed in the NTSB report, such as a “misinterpretation of clearance,” possible mechanical problems that weren’t found during a review of the wreckage and an attempt to avoid turbulence that was expected at higher altitude.
“No evidence was found to explain why this particular approach was attempted,” the NTSB report reads.
Five witnesses in homes or vehicles in the area reported hearing or seeing the plane in the moments before the crash, as it was unusual to hear one so low over the lake. One who saw it turning to head south over the lake reported it was “much lower over the lake than I expected,” and less than 30 seconds later heard a “loud thump” and looked to see a fireball on Pilot Knob Mountain.
A man who was driving north on Pilot Knob Road reported seeing the plane heading north, noticing it was “low” and being “buffeted” by winds. Another reported seeing “sparks” underneath the plane as it flew with its landing gear extended.
These days, 50 years after the crash, remnants of the plane crash can still be found on the mountain, including metal plates with the plane’s serial numbers. The site is popular with hikers who climb the mountain via unmarked trails to find the wreckage.
A small stone monument sits at the site, bearing the name of crash victim Serge Braschi, one of the passengers from France.
Killmeier said he doesn’t know who put it there.
“It’s a nice monument,” Killmeier said. “It’s small, because someone had to carry it up to the mountain by hand. It’s a steep climb up that mountain.”