Fatal Lake Placid airplane crash followed engine failure

National Transportation Safety Board Air Safety Investigator Todd Gunther speaks at a press conference at the Lake Placid Airport on Tuesday. (Enterprise photo — Sydney Emerson)

LAKE PLACID — The lead investigator into Sunday’s fatal airplane crash in Lake Placid said the crash appeared to follow a loss of power in the airplane’s engine.

The details shared by National Transportation Safety Board investigator Todd Gunther at a press conference on Tuesday sheds more light on what happened aboard the aircraft that led to the deaths of two seasoned pilots — Russ Francis, a former NFL tight end who recently purchased the Lake Placid Airways scenic tour business at the airport, and Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s Senior Vice President Richard McSpadden.

Gunther said there were two separate aircrafts scheduled for this flight. The other plane carried a photographer for the AOPA’s Pilot magazine. They were planning a scenic photoshoot of the 1976 Cessna 177RG that Francis and McSpadden were flying. The photographer’s plane took off first, followed by the Cessna, which is owned by Lake Placid Airways.

“The engine apparently lost power,” Gunther said. “The pilot, or pilots in this case, turned back toward the runway.”

This plane has two steering columns.

Gunther said they were attempting to land in the opposite direction from which they had taken off when the plane hit a berm at the end of the runway and fell around 30 feet into a ravine.

They had not been in the air long, he said, and were trying to catch up with the photography plane.

“When the airplane was observed, it did not appear to be climbing very well,” Gunther said.

Gunther said numerous witnesses told investigators that the pilots called over the radio, telling other aviators they had a problem and were returning to the airport.

The crash happened around 4:05 p.m. at the end of a runway, close to Recycle Circle Lane and the North Elba Athletic Fields. An eye witness, Ryan Branchaud, said he saw the crash while sitting on the front porch of his home nearby. He saw the plane take a sharp right while attempting to land and hit an embankment. He immediately jumped in his car and drove over to the crash site, along with a neighbor, Kevin Reynolds, and Lake Placid School fifth grade science teacher Jon Fremante. They attempted to open the door to the aircraft, diverted leaking fuel away from Francis and McSpadden and tried to keep both of them conscious while waiting for first responders to arrive.

Dozens of emergency personnel arrived at the scene on Sunday. When they arrived, the plane was sideways, down near the bottom of an embankment at the end of the runway, visible from Recycle Circle Lane. Several gliders were still in the air above the airfield after the crash, and they were directed to land elsewhere at the airport. Lake Placid emergency services, New York State Police, Saranac Lake Volunteer Rescue Squad and state Department of Environmental Conservation forest rangers responded.

On Monday, NTSB spokesperson Keith Holloway said the agency’s investigators will document the scene; examine the aircraft; try to contact any witnesses; and request air traffic communications, radar data, weather reports, maintenance records of the aircraft, and medical records and flight history of the pilots.

“It is important to note that NTSB does not determine cause in the early part of the investigative process,” Holloway wrote. “This is considered the fact gathering phase of the investigation.”

Gunther said there are six other investigators working hard on this. So far, they’ve been gathering witness interviews from people on the ground and in other aircraft. They’ve also been combing over the crashed plane to determine if any parts fell off in flight, if the plane had any structural failure, and if all the systems — fuel, flight control, vacuum, locations and electronics — were functioning properly.

Gunther said flight plans are not always filed with short flights like the one planned Sunday.

He also said a “black box,” which records all flight data and voices in the cockpit, is not required by federal law for this style of aircraft, because of their small size and passenger capacity.

Specialists in Washington, D.C. are looking at weather, pilots flight records, flight physiology and maintenance records on the aircraft.

Gunther said the investigative team will be working in Lake Placid until Friday. When they return, they’ll begin a preliminary report on the crash, to be released in seven to 10 business days after.

In 18 months, the NTSB will issue a final factual report including analysis and a probable cause for the crash.

The plane was built in 1976. Gunther said personal planes are supposed to be inspected annually. The NTSB has obtained the maintenance records for the plane, he said, and will be looking into them in the next few days.

Gunther offered condolences to their friends and families.

Lake Placid Airways, formerly known as the Adirondack Flying Service, operates a flight service at the Lake Placid Airport. It was transferred to new ownership this year after nearly 50 years under Steve Short, who took over the airport after his father, the previous owner, suffered an aneurysm in 1974. Al Furnia started the Adirondack Flying Service; Steve Short’s father took over from Furnia after Furnia got cancer.

Francis was the new owner of Lake Placid Airways alongside Rives Potts, 74.

Francis was drafted as both a pitcher for the Kansas City Royals in the 1974 Major League Baseball draft and as a third-string tight end for the New England Patriots in 1975. He went the football route. He was selected for the Pro Bowl during three consecutive seasons — 1977, 1978 and 1979 — and sat out the 1981 NFL season before playing six years with the San Francisco 49ers. It was with the 49ers that he would earn a Super Bowl ring in 1985. He retired in 1989 with 393 receptions and 5,262 receiving yards over his career.

When he was designated All-Pro, sports broadcaster and Francis’ friend Howard Cosell said he was “All-World.”

McSpadden, 63, was senior vice president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and a pilot with an “infectious passion” for flight and aircraft safety. McSpadden had been with the AOPA since 2017, first as the executive director of AOPA’s Air Safety Institute and since 2020 as the senior VP. He wrote many reports on crashes, which served as guides to others on how to avoid tragedy. His death in an airplane crash struck to the heart of the aviation enthusiasts who followed his work.

There have been at least 17 airplane crashes in Lake Placid since 1962, the most recent in 2014, according to National Transportation Safety Board records and past articles in the Enterprise.


Enterprise Managing Editor Elizabeth Izzo contributed to this report.


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