SARANAC LAKE - A small, private plane lost its propeller in mid-air before its pilot safely landed it in a remote Adirondack lake Thursday morning, a state police captain said Monday.
The plane, which was contracted by the U.S. Defense Department to support an ongoing Vermont Air National Guard training exercise, was recovered from Gull Lake in northern Herkimer County over the weekend by a private salvage company.
The 2010 Jabiru fixed-wing, single-engine plane, registered to Oregon-based Multi-Mission LLC, was on its way to Rome from Burlington, Vt., around 8:30 a.m. Thursday when police said its pilot - Benjamin P. Brown, 34, of Southern Pines, N.C. - radioed a mayday, citing a mechanical failure. It was flying at an altitude of 6,500 feet at the time, police said.
"The propeller came off the plane, in mid-air," state police Capt. Francis Coots said. "I can't tell you why, and that's up for the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and the person who owns the plane itself. But we're confident that's exactly what happened.
"The propeller came off, the pilot realized he needed to land, and he knew he probably was going to have one, maybe two chances to circle around. He put it right down in the pond, and it just skidded right across the surface until it came to a stop. Then they opened up the door and jumped out into the water. He did a great job. It was amazing."
A pair of HH-60 helicopters from the New York Air National Guard's 106th Rescue Wing, based on Long Island, were flying through the area on their way to Fort Drum when they heard the mayday message. They spotted the wreckage from the air and rescued Brown and his passenger, 44 year-old Charles E. Davis of Cedar City, Utah, who had swum to shore. The two were uninjured. They were flown to Fort Drum to be checked out by medical personnel.
"If you're going to crash a plane, you wanted this guy to be the pilot, and you certainly wanted some of the resources that were close by when it happened," Coots said.
Coots said he saw the tail of the plane sticking out of the water when he arrived at the site of the crash in a state police helicopter.
"It has since been recovered and removed," he said of the plane. "Everything finished up on Saturday. State police divers assisted the salvage team with securing the plane until it could be removed. They wanted to make sure that it didn't float out or it didn't sink any further, because when we first arrived there it was just floating on the surface of the water."
Coots said the salvage company accessed the site using a 10-mile-plus dirt road that runs from state Route 30, north of Long Lake, through Sabattis to the eastern end of Gull Lake.
"I was amazed because the road that accesses Gull Lake was in really tough shape; it was difficult to traverse via four-wheel drive," Coots said. "They had a lot of work to get the plane from water's edge to the truck itself. They disassembled the plane and put it on a truck."
State Department of Environmental Conservation Region 6 spokesman Steven Litwhiler said the plane was floated and towed to shore and then trucked away. He said less than a gallon of aviation fuel spilled, and no impacts to fish or wildlife were expected.
Coots said he's not sure where the propeller ended up after it flew off the plane. There were initial reports on Thursday, including a preliminary one from the FAA, that the plane had crashed into Slim Pond, about 15 miles due east of Gull Lake, near Route 30. Asked if that might be where the plane's propeller landed, Coots wasn't sure.
"I can't tell you it was Slim Pond, but I do know it was not Gull (Lake) where the propeller landed," Coots said. "The pilot was fairly confident that it went into a body of water, but I can't tell you which body of water. There's been a search for it, but as of yet we've been unable to locate it. Certainly if anybody should locate it, whether it's on water or on land, we'd want to be notified as soon as possible."
A spokesman for the FAA didn't return phone and email messages about the agency's investigation of the accident Monday.
Shortly after the crash, the Vermont Air National Guard issued a statement saying the plane was taking part in a military training exercise and was not carrying any armaments at the time of the crash.
"I'm not sure specifically what their role was outside of the fact that they were flying in support of the exercises," Lt. Col. Lloyd Goodrow of the Vermont ANG said Monday. "They were civilian contractors, and I have no information other than they were contracted by the government to support the exercises."
Goodrow said the training exercises, which started Aug. 14 and will end later this week, have been taking place over the Adirondacks, near Fort Drum and in parts of New Hampshire.
"There are multiple different military organizations involved in the exercise," Goodrow said. "They're practicing aviation techniques that would be required should the units have to go to war. The mission involves a lot of close-air support, supporting soldiers on the ground, air defense - those type of scenarios."
The Vermont Air National Guard flies F-16s. Goodrow said eight to 10 aircraft from his unit are taking part in the exercises, which run from roughly 8 a.m. until dusk.
Eric Durr, a spokesman for the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs, which oversees the New York Air National Guard, said the helicopters from the 106th Rescue Wing that rescued the plane's two-man crew were participating in the same training exercises at the time of the crash.