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Russ Francis, former Patriots tight end, killed in Lake Placid plane crash

Patriots Russ Francis caught a long pass from Steve Grogan in 1979.frank o brien

Former New England Patriots tight end Russ Francis and Richard McSpadden, an aviation safety expert and former commander of the US Air Force Thunderbirds, were killed Sunday in a plane crash outside Lake Placid, N.Y.

McSpadden was sitting in the right seat of the single-engine Cessna when it crashed near the Lake Placid Airport around 4 p.m., according to the Lake Placid News and the National Transportation Safety Board. Francis, 70, was in the left seat. It was not clear who was piloting the aircraft.

Former New England Patriots tight end Russ Francis signed a football. Bob Robicheau

An investigator from the NTSB was expected to arrive at the crash site Monday to “document the scene, examine the aircraft, request any air traffic communications, radar data, weather reports and try to contact any witnesses,” an NTSB spokesman said.


The plane appears to have taken a “hard roll to the left shortly after takeoff” from the airport, the spokesman said. Preliminary findings may be issued in 10 to 12 days.

Francis played for the Patriots from 1975 to 1980 and again from 1987 to 1988. From 1982 to 1987, he played for the San Francisco 49ers and was on the team when they won Super Bowl XIX under coach Bill Walsh.

Francis had a longtime interest in aviation and recently purchased Lake Placid Airways, which provides scenic and charter flights, according to the Lake Placid News. He was authorized to fly single and multi-engine planes and helicopters as a commercial pilot, according to Federal Aviation Administration records.

Francis’s brother, Ed Francis, said the family was devastated.

Russ Francis (81) and Andy Johnson in 1976. Frank O'Brien/Globe Staff

“My older brother Russ Francis was just killed in an airplane crash in Lake Placid, New York,” he wrote Sunday on Facebook. “Needless to say, my family and I are completely flattened. Flying was my brother’s lifelong passion, and perhaps a fitting way for him to go. God speed to you my big brother!!”


Ed Francis’s words were echoed by Kate Naiman, the mother of Russ Francis’s son.

“I am shattered to share that my son’s father, NFL great Russ Francis, passed away, along with a friend, in a plane crash Sunday afternoon,” Naiman wrote Monday. “One of the hardest things I’ve ever done was to choke those words out to Michael. Sending aloha to Russ’s partner Jaxie, to Michael’s sister Rachel and brother Riley, to Russ’s sister, Pixie, and brothers Bill and Uncle Ed Francis. My heart aches for all of you.”

For Francis, “flying was like breathing ... it came naturally and he lived for it,” Naiman said. “He used to fly his P-51 Mustang to practice and land in the [San Francisco] stadium parking lot and really piss off Bill Walsh. There will be some comfort down the road in knowing that he died doing the thing he loved most, but not today. Not today.”

In a statement, Patriots owner Robert Kraft extended his “sincerest sympathies” to Francis’s family.

“Russ was a fan favorite throughout his playing career. He was a dynamic player on the field who had an even bigger personality off it,” Kraft said in the statement. “He knew no boundaries, pushed the limits and lived his life to the fullest. Our thoughts are with Russ’s family, friends, teammates and the many Patriots fans who mourn his loss.”

McSpadden was senior vice president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which represents pilots and owners of private aircraft. The group described McSpadden as “a very accomplished pilot, including serving as commander of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds during his military career, and a trusted colleague, friend, son, husband, and father.”


“McSpadden served in the Air Force for 20 years, including the prestigious role of commander and flight leader of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds flight demonstration team where he led over 100 flight demonstrations flying the lead aircraft,” the association said.

In his post-military career, McSpadden helped teach general aviation pilots about the cause of crashes by focusing on the pilot’s decisions and sharing his conclusions in a conversational way on social media.

Michael J. Prevost,a private pilot from Bolton who hangars his aircraft at Hanscom Field, said McSpadden was “amazing at reconstructing accidents and teaching us how to make better decisions as pilots.”

“Richard brought a level of knowledge, skill, and discipline to piloting that every pilot wishes to own,” he said by email.

Prevost recalled how McSpadden took lessons from an instructor on flying a Piper J-3 Cub single engine aircraft, even though someone with his background could have easily learned on his own.

“He brought humility to flying, a major safety characteristic!” Prevost wrote. “This is a very simple and modest airplane but Richard did not take any shortcuts despite his incredible flying experience ... Richard was a great ambassador for the general aviation community.”

Francis was named to the Pro Bowl three times in his 14-year NFL career. He was drafted by the Patriots out of the University of Oregon in the first round in 1975.


A Pro Bowl selection in 1976, 1977, and 1978, Francis had 196 receptions for 2,996 yards and 28 touchdowns in his first six seasons.

He retired ahead of the 1981 season, citing personal reasons, but returned to the NFL in 1982. He played parts of six seasons in San Francisco before he was waived by the 49ers during the 1987 season.

He re-signed with the Patriots and played 12 games in 1988, his final pro season. Francis appeared in 162 regular-season games and had 393 receptions, 5,262 yards, and 40 touchdowns.

Matt Pepin of the Globe Staff contributed to this report. This is a developing story.

New England Patriots tight end Russ Francis made a leaping catch during a game when the Patriots beat the San Diego Chargers, 27-21 on Sept. 23, 1979.George Rizer/Globe Staff

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