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Noted explorer dies in plane crash in area

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Posted on November 27, 2017 |
By John S. McCright and John S. McCright



PITTSFORD — An 89-year-old Massachusetts man who led an extraordinary life of exploration and excitement died on Wednesday evening while traveling to see his family in Starksboro for Thanksgiving.

Norman L. Baker of Windsor, Mass., was piloting a four-seat Cessna airplane when it crashed in Pittsford. He was the only person on board.

“My dad absolutely loved flying,” Dan Baker of Starksboro told the Independent on Friday afternoon. “He’d rather fly that plane to see friends and family than drive a car.”

A resident of Pittsford, which is just south of Brandon, called 911 at around 5 p.m. on Nov. 22. They told the dispatcher that they had seen a small aircraft flying low and continuing out of sight, then heard a loud noise. The caller was fearful the plane had crashed in the area of Sugar Hollow Road in Pittsford, but had not seen a crash. Police looked but could not find the downed plane at that time.

With the assistance of the Federal Aviation Administration, Vermont Civil Air Patrol and the Rutland Regional Airport, police determined there were no unaccounted-for aircraft in the area, or any aircraft broadcasting a distress signal. Members of the Civil Air Patrol set up a grid and searched from the air but found nothing.

Meanwhile, Dan Baker waited for his father, Norman, at the Middlebury State Airport.

At about 11:30 p.m. Vermont authorities heard from Massachusetts State Police that an aircraft had left Pittsfield, Mass., bound for Middlebury but it had not arrive. Vermont State Police Search and Rescue Team coordinated a search with assistance of firefighters from the Pittsford, Brandon and Chittenden fire departments. They searched all night but found nothing around Sugar Hollow Road.

Police located Dan Baker at the Middlebury airport and alerted him to the situation, and he headed south to join the search.

“Pittsford, Brandon, Chittenden fire departments — they all did an outstanding job,” Dan Baker said. “The whole team was out all night long.”

The following morning, a Vermont Army National Guard helicopter responded to search the area along with several planes from the Vermont Civil Air Patrol using infrared cameras, but they were again unable to locate any crash sites.

The break came a little before 11:30 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning when a landowner who was walking his property after learning of the missing plane called police to report he had found it.

Police responded to a wooded area off Route 7 in Pittsford near Whistlestop Lane and confirmed Baker’s plane by the tail number on the heavily damaged craft. Norman Baker was located deceased near the plane. Police cut a road wide enough for ATVs through the woods to get to the scene of the crash.

LIFE OF AN ADVENTURER

Dan Baker said his dad had been flying almost his whole life.

“At age 13 he made a balsawood and paper airplane for a contest. His reward was flying lessons,” Baker said.

Norman Baker soloed as a pilot at 17 and  joined the flying club at Cornell College. He joined the Navy and would have flown there, but “my grandmother wouldn’t let him,” Dan Baker said with a chuckle. Instead he served on a destroyer in the Korean War.

A website cataloging the lives of American adventurers, says Norman Baker worked in a gold mine in Alaska, staked out a dessert boundary between Colorado and New Mexico that had never before been surveyed, and worked as a deck hand in a trans-Pacific yacht race and rose to become captain of the ship.

After the Navy, Norman Baker went into business with his brother, working as a civil engineer. But his exploits didn’t end there.

Baker became a member of the famed Explorers Club, a New York-based society that promotes scientific field study. He rose to be a director of the club. His son says that as recently as last summer Norman Baker went on a backcountry trip with the Explorers Club looking for dinosaur bones — this only months after hip surgery.

Dan Baker recounted a noteworthy adventure of his father’s that involved Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian adventurer who sailed across the Pacific in a balsa wood raft. In the late 1960s, Heyerdahl proposed to sail across the Atlantic on a papyrus and reed boat to prove that ancient Egyptians could have made a similar trip. Baker served as first mate on the adventure, which ended with all hands rescued at sea. A year later, Heyerdahl, Baker and company tried again and successfully sailed from Morocco to Barbados.

Baker teamed with Heyerdahl later that decade on a sailing expedition between the Tigris River Basin in Iraq and the Indus River Valley of Pakistan and India. He later lectured on these adventures and co-authored a children’s book based on the Atlantic voyage.

Apparently endowed with a restless mind and body, Norman Baker didn’t slow down after retirement, Dan Baker said. He repaired a schooner — an old tall ship — with his family in the 1980s, Dan recalled. Norman and his wife, Mary Ann, lived on the ship then and ran it as a business for five years.

Later in life, Baker served as an advisor for an organization that is searching for signs of Viking settlements in North America. He flew the 1966 Cessna to the West Coast not long ago, Dan said. He had flown the route from Pittsfield, Mass., to Middlebury around 20 times.

Police could not determine the cause of last Wednesday’s crash. The National Transportation Safety Board is sending an investigator to assist in examining the crash wreckage. 

Norman Baker leaves behind two sons, a daughter and grandchildren.

“He was really an old school good guy,” Dan Baker said.

Editor's note: Additional reporting by Lee J. Kahrs.

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