The Wreckage of Dr Ralph Miller's crashed Piper Comanche in The Pemigewasset Valley

Missing Plane - Drs Ralph E. Miller MD and Robert E. Quinn MD of Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital Perish Four Days After Plane Crash in New Hampshire Wilderness


Submitted 2 years ago
Created by
Michael Hinsley

Today in Hanover and Dartmouth College History February 21, 1959

On the morning of Saturday, February 21, 1959, Dr Ralph E. Miller agreed to fly Dr Robert Quinn, to Berlin, N.H, so Dr Quinn could consult on a patient with cardiac problems. Dr. Miller a noted pathologist whose involvement in many of the tragedies that have occurred in Hanover and the State of New Hampshire, is recorded on the death certificates or autopsy reports of the cases, was planning to fly to Lancaster, N.H., only 20 miles from Berlin to perform an autopsy. Dr. Quinn, 32 years old, was a respected young cardiologist who had joined Mary Hitchcock Hospital and Dartmouth Medical School in 1956. 

Dr. Ralph E. Miller and Dr Robert E. Quinn

The weather was not good when Dr. Miller's Piper Comanche (N5324P) lifted off from the Lebanon Airport. Dr. Miller had filed a six-hour round-trip flight plan that outlined a plan to drop Dr. Quinn off in Berlin to care for the cardiac patient, then Dr Miller would fly to Whitefield, N.H. airport. Dr Miller would travel to nearby Lancaster to perform the autopsy before flying back to Berlin to pick up Dr Quinn for the flight back to Lebanon. The return flight was planned from Berlin to over Gorham and Littleton, then down the Connecticut River to Lebanon. 

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The original flight plan and the doctors appointments were successful until the weather of New Hampshire entered the story. Dr. Miller canceled his original flight plan. The two doctors then went into nearby Milan for a lunch, hoping the weather would improve. Dr. Miler's cream and red Piper Comanche was seen taking off from the Berlin airport around 3:30. Miller hadn't submitted a revised flight plan yet, but the airport official who saw him depart into the snowy air, assumed he'd file one by radio.

At 9:00 p.m. that same night, Modestino Criscitiello, M.D.—a close friend of the Quinns and, like the young cardiologist, a 1956 addition to the Clinic staff and the DMS faculty—informed the Civil Aeronautics Authority that the two physicians had not returned as expected. Despite subzero temperatures and continued snow squalls, a search was launched before dawn on Sunday morning. It quickly became one of the most extensive searches in the state's history, covering hundreds of square miles from Vermont in the west, to Maine in the east, and as far south as Keene, N.H.

Although he had 20 years' experience as a pilot, Miller had had only eight hours of instrument training, so he generally flew low enough to follow the highways. His plane was identified over Route 2 in Jefferson at 3:35 p.m. At roughly the same time, an Army pilot flying high overhead in the clouds heard Miller twice try to radio the Whitefield Airport. According to the Army pilot, there was no response from Whitefield. No further sightings or reports were ever confirmed.

Although the air search was hampered by several days of bad weather, it eventually involved the Civil Air Patrol, the National Guard, the Army, and the Air Force, as well as dozens of private planes. February 25—four days after the doctors' disappearance—brought the first really good weather for aerial surveillance; that day, 70 aircraft crisscrossed northern New Hampshire. The intensive air search, which included both fixed-wing planes and helicopters, continued for several more days. Before the Air Force withdrew from the effort in early March, its pilots alone had contributed nearly 450 sorties, 700 hours of flying time, and 5,000 gallons of fuel.

A young Pathologist, Dr Ralph E Miller Feb 26, 1934 at the scene of  The Dartmouth College Theta Chi Fraternity tragedy.

Dr Ralph E Miller August 1955

Mr John Rand helps coordinate the search for the missing Doctors. John Rand Jr '38 the Dartmouth Outing Club Director was able to use the knowledge of the New Hampshire North woods and the willing and able members of the Dartmouth Outing Club to conduct ground searches

Dr Philip Nice a colleague of Drs Miller and Quinn played an instrumental role in the search

Dr. Phil Nice with members of the Dartmouth Outing Club and a Conservation Officer of New Hampshire Fish and Game

Dr Nice and New Hampshire Fish and Game Conservation Officer

Searchers prepare for transport to their designated ground search area in a Willys Forward Control Truck

The resources of New Hampshire and Vermont, local and State were involved. Eventually the US Army and US Air Force had personnel and aircraft involved

                                        Military Bell Helicopter searching for Dr Miller and Dr Quinn
Civil Air Patrol Cub taxing past US Air Force Sikorsky H-19


US Army Piasecki Helicopter involved in the search for Dr Miller and Dr Quinn

Adrian Bouchard The Dartmouth College Photographer captured this image of the scene when then search had found the plane crash. The plane and the Two-Star General indicates the importance this search had on our region

The crash site of Drs Miller and Quinn was discovered May 6, 1959.

Investigators examining the crash site of N5324P

The first arriving responders discovered that both Dr. Miller and Dr Quinn had survived the crash. The only apparent injury was Dr Miller had a broken jaw. Despite this injury they were able to not only survive multiple days but had created a signal fire, crafted snowshoes and attempted to rescue themselves by walking to safety. The Miller wrote that the day after the plane crashed, "We went south...but the road petered out and we returned with enough energy to secure wood for the night."

Two days later, Dr Miller a trained and experienced pathologist recognizing the chances of rescue and survival were diminishing wrote: "Still trying though tools broken. No hope left... Goodbye all."

These journal entries were written in the fabric taken from the back of the planes seats.

Dr Miller's body was found under the wing. Dr Quinn's was found a couple of hundred feet from the crash site. The actions of these two men, both before the accident, flying in bad weather to treat patients in under served areas of our state at their own peril, and theirs actions after the crash, the skills, resourcefulness and commitment to survive is a what makes this not just a tragedy, but an example of caring, commitment and the skills needed and the desire to survive.
The response of our communities, not just traditional emergency responders, but all those who knew the doctors involved or knew of terrain and had the knowledge of the area, the skills and ability to search in the wilderness of New Hampshire in the winter. Those who answered the call to help, and committed themselves to the task, set the example for us to follow.

One of two sets of snowshoes fabricated by Miller and Quinn after the crash out of saplings, surical tape and pieces of cord.  These Snowshoes were found carefully hung on a tree near a neat stack of firewood and the body of Dr. Ralph E Miller

Ralph Miller '55 son of Dr Ralph Miller '24 reads the journal left by his father, protected in a plastic bottle.

                                                         My last and most important message!! Survival Instincts fight pain R.E.M.

 Good bye all.

                    This is saving a lot of experiments I hope. 

Memorial at the plane crash site

Please read John Morton's Article for Dartmouth Medicine Magazine for more in depth description and accounts of this tragedy

Photo Credit to Rauner Library. Their preserving this sort of information and making it accessible to all is one of the reasons it is the coolest, most special places on campus.

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