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Harrowing escape, but he lived to tell the tale

Pilot and others remember High Peaks plane crash 40 years ago

August 8, 2009
By JESSICA COLLIER, Enterprise Staff Writer

f you happen to be awake at 12:05 a.m. Sunday, think of F. Peter Simmons. At that moment, it will be 40 years ago since Simmons crashed his plane into Iroquois Mountain in the High Peaks' MacIntyre mountain range.

Simmons, then a 43-year-old Long Island resident who owned an island camp called Ledgerock Lodge near the Blue Jay Campgrounds in Tupper Lake, was flying to the Adirondacks for a weekend visit with his wife and kids. He worked as an aerospace engineer for Grumman Aerospace Corporation and frequently came to visit the camp on weekends.

It was a trip Simmons made often in his four-passenger Piper Cherokee 140, which had a tail number of N6483R. Normally, he would land at the Tupper Lake airstrip and be picked up by his wife, Dottie. But that night, he had to wait in Albany for an Adirondack thunderstorm to clear up, and the lights would have been out at the Tupper airstrip by the time he got to the Adirondacks. After talking with air-traffic control in Massena, he planned to fly his single-engine plane to the Lake Clear airport instead, where there would be lights and a larger runway.

Article Photos

In 1970, Pete Simmons and his family visit the wreckage of the single-engine plane he was flying when it crashed into Iroquois Peak a year before.
(Photo provided by Pete Simmons)

At about 11:15 p.m. that Aug. 8, Simmons was told the weather had cleared up and was given the go-ahead to fly to Lake Clear.

Simmons took off. He made his way to the Adirondacks.

Once he got close to Saranac Lake, he was told by Massena air-traffic control that there was no wind and the sky was clear in the Saranac Lake airport, so he was OK to land there.

"And I said, 'Okie dokie,' so I closed off my flight plan then on the radio, 12 miles south of Saranac (Lake)," Simmons said.

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The descent

Simmons dropped down a bit and then brought his plane back level - or thought he did. But his instruments indicated that he was still descending.

He was losing 1,100 feet of altitude a minute.

"I put in as much power as I had left in my airplane, and it did not climb; it was still going down," Simmons said.

He was caught in a downdraft. He recalled his flight instructor telling him how high-speed winds can rush down the side of a mountain.

He realized he was going down. He again remembered the words of his flight instructor.

"'If is a crash is inevitable, slow the plane up.' I just remember those words," Simmons said.

He pulled the nose up and slowed to just above stall speeds. And then he hit.

"I felt a sight bump when my tail hit the top of the tree, but I don't remember the crash," Simmons said.

He was unconscious even before the moment of impact.

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The aftermath

If you look at the clock at 12:15 a.m. Sunday, think of Simmons' wife. Forty years ago, she was waiting at the Saranac Lake airport, wondering why her husband didn't arrive at midnight like he was supposed to.

"Dottie was looking around the horizon for lights of an airplane or sounds of an engine," Simmons said. "But all she could hear was crickets."

She called the Massena flight service station. They told her they had talked to Simmons when he was 12 miles south of Saranac Lake, and maybe he had landed at a different airport.

He had not. The Civil Air Patrol mounted a search. Airplanes crisscrossed the Adirondacks looking for a flaming wreck.

By dawn on Saturday, Aug. 9, about 27 private airplanes were searching for him.

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The wave

At 2:35 p.m. Sunday, think of CAP pilot Tom Parker. Parker's voice came over the radio 40 years ago. He was flying over the cloudy mountain when, though a hole in the clouds, he spotted a person waving a red cloth next to a downed plane.

Simmons doesn't remember it, but he must have dragged himself out of the airplane.

"I was standing on the wing of the airplane in my business suit waving my blood-soaked handkerchief," Simmons said.

He only knows this because Tom Parker later told him about it.

Parker flew back to the base to point out the spot on the map, but he had some trouble finding it. But the search had a lead.

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The forest ranger

Think of Gary Hodgson at 5 p.m. Sunday. Hodgson was a forest ranger stationed in the area of the crash. He was coming out of the woods on Mount Marcy when some campers asked him if the plane had been found yet. They had heard about it on the news. Hodgson hadn't heard about it at all.

So 40 years ago at 5 p.m., he called the Lake Placid airport to find out what was going on and to offer his assistance.

Hodgson said that, working with a CAP pilot, he was able to determine that Simmons and the plane were in a notch west of the state Conservation Department's cabin at Lake Colden.

So he and Al Jordan, a Conservation Department caretaker, ventured into the woods. Another department employee followed with state troopers and other searchers.

"We were a little more used to running through the woods than they were," Hodgson said.

Once Hodgson and Jordan arrived at the notch, they looked around. Light was waning. The woods were thick. A historically huge blow-down in 1950 had left foliage a person could hardly walk through.

Then a gust of wind blew. The men heard the sound of squeaking metal. The airplane's tail rotor was moving in the wind.

"I kinda put this in the category of divine guidance," Hodgson said.

The men followed the noise and found the airplane. The balsam fir trees had broken and bent when the plane crashed, cushioning it. One wing had torn off and pulled the plane sideways. It had stopped short of a boulder the size of a small garage, which would probably have killed Simmons if the plane hit it, Hodgson said.

But it didn't. Simmons was alive. He had dried blood on him but was no longer bleeding.

"He was actually in much better shape than what I expected him to be in," Hodgson said.

So Jordan and Hodgson decided to get him warm and hydrated. They wrapped Simmons in a sleeping bag and put a lantern in the plane with him to warm him up. Whenever he was conscious, they would make him drink Riley's grape drink mix, a forerunner to Gatorade.

Jordan stayed with Simmons for the night, trying to keep him awake and hydrated, while Hodgson went for help. He hiked down to the Lake Colden cabin, where there was a radio, and called for a helicopter to be brought in with two doctors in the morning. Then he went back up the mountain with a chainsaw to cut out branches to make it easier for the helicopter to access the plane.

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The helicopter

Monday morning, think of Dr. Herbert Bergamini, of Lake Placid. Bergamini was contacted early that Aug. 10, 40 years ago, and jumped into a helicopter that flew him to the mountaintop.

Bergamini was put in a harness and dropped out of the helicopter.

"You step out of the helicopter, and you're still 100 feet in the air," Bergamini said.

On the ground, he unclipped himself from the line and checked Simmons over.

"He was pretty stable, and I said, 'Gee, we need to get him to a hospital,'" Bergamini said.

Bergamini helped mount Simmons into a stretcher attached to a line that pulled him up into the helicopter. Bergamini followed. He was still being reeled into the helicopter as it peeled away from the mountain, for a few moments leaving him dangling several hundred feet in the air.

Once safe in the helicopter and then later at the Lake Placid hospital (still an independent, full-service hospital back in those days), Bergamini worked to stabilize and hydrate Simmons. He had a range of injuries, from a shattered cheekbone to a fractured skull, but none too serious for some time and care to heal.

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The flight

Probably about one month after the crash, Simmons told Bergamini he wanted to see the crash site. Bergamini was also a pilot and had a small plane, so he flew Simmons up over Iroquois Mountain.

They knew the crashed airplane was still up there, but they couldn't find it. Though it was a clear day, they circled the mountain for 20 minutes before they finally spotted it.

"We realized it was an act of God that they spotted him when they did," Bergamini said.

The spotting was crucial to Simmons' survival.

"If we hadn't rescued him that day, that would have been it," Bergamini said.

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The future

Simmons went on to do big things, helping to develop the predecessor of the Hubble Space Telescope. He is now retired with his wife in Colorado. Now an 83-year-old man, he still tells the story of his narrow rescue from a high-altitude death with a sense of disbelief that he made it out alive and a deep gratitude for all that helped save him.

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Contact Jessica Collier at (518) 891-2600 ext. 25 or jcollier@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.

 
 

 

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