The NTSB says the Cessna 177RG carrying AOPA Safety Institute head Richard McSpadden crashed about 440 feet short of Lake Placid’s Runway 14 in a failed attempt to return to the airport after McSpadden reported an unspecified problem with the plane. According to the preliminary report (click link at end of story) McSpadden was in the right seat and Russ Francis, the owner of the plane and a former NFL player and Super Bowl winner, was in the left seat. It’s not clear who was flying when the aircraft hit an embankment about 15 feet below the brow of the plateau on which the airport is built. Both men died of their injuries in the Oct. 1 accident.
The Cardinal was No. 2 in a two-ship formation with an A36 Bonanza carrying a photographer to capture images for a magazine story. McSpadden was to take control of the plane when the photo shoot began. After the Bonanza took off, the Cardinal followed. “During the takeoff roll, a witness described that the engine sounded as if the propeller was set for ‘climb’ and not takeoff, then he heard the engine surge,” the report says. “During the initial climb, the witness further described that the engine did not sound as if it was running at full power.” As the Cardinal moved to join with the Bonanza about 300-400 feet AGL, the Bonanza pilot heard McSpadden on the CTAF say, “We have a problem and we’re returning to the airport.”
Examination of the wreckage didn’t appear to reveal any issues with the plane, which had plenty of fuel and an almost-new engine. Weather was clear and winds were light. Francis had recently purchased Lake Placid Airways, which ultimately owned the aircraft. McSpadden, a former commander of the Air Force Thunderbirds, was a highly respected accident analyst. He frequently published factual descriptions of high-profile accidents soon after they occurred with the intent of tempering the sometimes-speculative analyses of some social media influencers.