NEWCOMB — Two Malone-area men were killed when the Piper Cherokee they were flying crashed Sunday in rough terrain about eight miles south of Lake Placid.
Pilot Daniel R. Wills, 48, of North Bangor, a certified-flight instructor and member of the local band Slab City, and his passenger, Ronald E. Rouselle, 66, of Bombay, died on impact, said friends and fellow pilots who had spoken with State Police investigators and U.S. Border Protection and Customs agents.
The men had gone missing Sunday night, but the plane’s emergency-locator transmitter never sent out a signal for authorities to trace.
That will be among the questions investigators with the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board will answer as they conduct a mandatory post-crash probe.
An exhaustive search for the plane was conducted Monday and into the early morning hours Tuesday, with the crash site on Santanoni Mountain finally located by State Police about 8:35 a.m. Tuesday.
The men had left Saratoga at 4:25 p.m. Sunday and were last seen on radar by Albany Airport officials at 4:54 p.m., flying at 4,200 feet, heading toward terrain of 4,600 feet near the Tahawus mining area.
“The problem is, with that area, there is a valley on the right and the mountains on the left,” said Jeff Kearney, a pilot and family friend. “It’s not unusual for the airport to lose radio contact over the mountains when they are flying at that altitude anyway.”
He said the mountain elevations change from 5,344 feet to 4,641 feet in that region near North Creek, North River, Wevertown and Bakers Mills.
No one was at the small Malone Dufort Airport on Sunday night to know that Wills had not arrived. He was the person at the airport who normally would have reported any delay in the expected arrival of a plane.
No one knew anything was wrong until Monday, when pilots and people in training were arriving at the Malone airport for their scheduled appointments with Wills, who had logged at least 15,000 hours in the air during his 20 years of flying. Wills did not show up, and his car and Rouselle’s were in the airport parking lot.
“It’s not like Dan to miss appointments,” Kearney said. “Dan was not answering his cell phone, and we couldn’t find him. About 3 o’clock, my wife (Jennifer) called the State Police.”
Investigators went to Wills’s home and checked on Rouselle’s house, as well, and when they couldn’t find either man, investigators canvassed airports in the region for information.
After learning what they could from the Albany Airport, State Police sent up their helicopter about 8 p.m. Monday and were joined by a Border Patrol plane.
Border Patrol was flying at 8,000 feet, and State Police were about 3,000 feet below them.
“The Border Patrol stayed in the air as long as they could until 2 a.m. (Tuesday); then they had to come down,” Kearney said. “They said they were going back at dawn.
“By that time, a lot of the pilots were gathering here and were going to go up at 8 a.m. to help in the search. The State Police asked them to wait until about 8 so they wouldn’t clutter the air.
“Just about as they were ready to go, we got the call at 8:30, saying they found the wreckage. The Forest Rangers rappelled down, checked the wreckage and said there were no survivors.”
Wills, who was single and survived by his parents and a brother, was certified by the FAA to qualify pilots-in-training for their licenses and was in the Capital Region to give pilots their final oral test and in-flight check test before they would be cleared to fly on their own.
Wills was supposed to be there on Saturday, but bad weather postponed the trip to Sunday, Kearney said.
WENT FOR THE RIDE
Rouselle is a retired Alcoa employee who was not a pilot but was about to begin lessons with Wills. He owned a Cessna 140 Tail Dragger and apparently had gone along for the ride when Wills had to go to Albany.
Among his survivors are his wife, Peggy, of Westville; two daughters and their husbands, Lynn and Bill Jock of Chazy and Elisa and Charles LaFountain of Tennessee; and two grandchildren, Cassie and Derek Jock of Chazy.
Kearney said the Piper Cherokee Low Wing “was the best plane in Dan’s fleet” and that the engine was mechanically sound and almost new, which is why no one can understand why the emergency beacon did not work.
What’s even more incredible to him is that Wills routinely practiced emergency-landing procedures to make sure trainees at the controls could handle the situation.
Kearney’s 19-year-old daughter, Katelynn, said she was tested that way just last week.
“He was a very good instructor and always practiced emergencies with everybody,” she said. “We went up, and at 3,000 feet above the airport, he shut the power off.
“If you’re going to crash, Dan is the guy you want to crash with.”
Jennifer Kearney, Jeff’s wife, was answering the dozens of telephone calls at the pilot’s lounge at the airport Tuesday morning, fielding questions from airport users, plane owners and friends who wanted to learn more about what happened.
Mrs. Kearney was also the one who, between bouts of crying, had to call the people in Wills’s appointment book to tell them why their date with him would not be kept.
“Every Border Patrol guy I spoke with had either taken lessons from him or flown with him,” she said. “He was like a parent to everyone who took lessons from him.
“If you asked 1,000 of his friends, that would still be a small number of the people who loved him. Everybody loved him.
“He had fun with everything he did, and that included the band,” she said, where Wills did some of the singing and played the bass, piano and more.
“He was entertaining even when he didn’t have an instrument in his hand,” she said as she laughed and brushed away tears.
“He was just one of those people who will never die.”
E-mail Denise A. Raymo at: firstname.lastname@example.org