Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Robert McGaunn - A Solemn Memorial on a Mountain Top

This is an unusual post, as I never intended to write about an accident in Acadia National Park. My intention was to stick with the subject of plaques and granite memorials and memorial paths. There is, however, a memorial of sorts in the Park located near the summit of Cedar Swamp Mountain on Mount Desert Island, ME that should be mentioned. It remains in testimony to Robert McGaunn, who lost his life in a plane crash there in 1970 at the age of 49.

McGaunn, born in Massachusetts in 1921, was certified as an airline transport pilot with 6000 hours of flying time. As senior pilot for Aircraft Services International, he was flying solo, ferrying a four-passenger, single-engine Piper PA-24 Comanche, aircraft registration nr. N9349P, from Lock Haven, PA to a customer in Gander, Newfoundland. On 30 June 1970 he refueled at Boston's Logan International Airport, where he received a weather briefing. He took off and proceeded on his 900-mile delivery flight to Gander under visual flight rules (VFR). En route he flew into adverse weather conditions, which would have required his flying under instrument flight rules (IFR). McGaunn, who was IFR rated, for unknown reasons continued to fly with a 300-foot cloud ceiling in the rain and visibility-obscuring fog. He did not complete his trip and was reported missing on that date. A U.S. and Canadian search was started along the route of his expected flight path to Gander, which would have been mainly over water. They found no wreckage. Nearly three months after McGaunn had departed Boston a pilot from nearby Trenton, ME spotted the wreckage while flying over Cedar Swamp Mountain and informed investigators. McGaunn's body was recovered on 29 September 1970. He is buried with his wife, Maxine (King), in Wesley Chapel Cemetery, Crockett, TX.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report of the accident, he collided with trees at about 30 feet above ground level at approximately 942 feet above mean sea level. There was fire after impact. The NTSB determined the accident was the result of pilot error.

We likely will never learn why this accident happened. McGaunn was an experienced pilot. He retired from the U.S. Air Force as a captain who flew in the Korean War and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his heroism. Subsequently he ferried aircraft to Europe. Not all of his ferry flights went smoothly. The Lubbock (TX) Avalanche-Journal reported in its 9 February 1970 edition that McGaunn had made an emergency landing at Shannon airport after flying the last 1,000 miles over the Atlantic on only one of two engines. He was delivering a Piper Aztec to a customer in Geneva, Switzerland.

The wreckage of PA-24 rests hidden in the woods about 500 feet north of the Cedar Swamp Mountain summit. It's a solemn site, where a visitor will respectfully ponder several things: how did it happen and what was going on in the pilot's mind as he drew deeply on his skills to find a way out of his dilemma. The visitor will also contemplate what it was like for his family not to know what happened to him while he was missing for three months. Perhaps, too, after absorbing it all and before leaving, the visitor will bow in silent prayer for the soul of pilot and war hero Robert McGaunn.

GPS coordinates:
Cedar Swamp Mtn summit: N44° 19.692'  W068° 16.571'
Accident site:  N44° 19.749'  W068° 16.621'