Norman Baker took off in his single-engine Cessna from Pittsfield Municipal Airport on Wednesday, bound for Vermont and a Thanksgiving celebration with his three children, their spouses and partners, and his seven grandchildren.
It’s a routine journey that the 89-year-old pilot from the small Berkshires town of Windsor had made many times. But on this flight, something went tragically awry, and Baker’s long, incredible life came to an abrupt end on a wooded ridge in Pittsford, Vt.
“Flying permeates every bone in my dad’s body,” said Daniel Baker, a University of Vermont professor who had opened his home in Starksboro, Vt., for the holiday gathering.
For Norman Baker, flying was only one part of a lifetime of daring exploration and adventure. He served as celestial navigator for the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl’s trans-Atlantic crossings in boats built of papyrus reeds in 1969 and 1970, audacious journeys from Africa to the Caribbean that attempted to show that ancient peoples could have made the journey.
Heyerdahl previously had won international acclaim for a similarly inspired journey across the Pacific on the wooden raft Kon-Tiki.
As a young man, Baker helped settle the last unsurveyed state lines in the Western United States, his son recalled. He worked in an Alaskan gold mine after studying at Cornell University. He climbed the Matterhorn on his honeymoon. And he and his late wife of 43 years, Mary Ann, rebuilt a 19th-century Norwegian schooner that they used as both a home and a training and research vessel as they sailed up and down the East Coast.
The vessel, the Anne Kristine, was lost in the Perfect Storm of 1991. Baker and his wife were not aboard, and all nine crew members were rescued by the Coast Guard.
“He wanted to fill his life with all the things he loved. He wanted to pursue his dreams every minute of his life,” Daniel Baker said. “He did it, and he did it really consciously from the time he was a teenager.”
Norman Baker celebrated his 89th birthday last Saturday at a Roslindale restaurant with his daughter, Elizabeth Atwood, and her husband, Bill, who live in Milton. During dinner, he sketched out a plan to venture deep into the Saskatchewan wilderness next summer with a longtime friend for a three-week canoe trip, a journey they had taken many times.
As usual, Baker planned to fly there. There was no sign of slowing down, even as he rounded the turn to 90 years of age.
“There was never, ‘I can’t do this,’ ” Atwood said. “My dad was really a larger-than-life guy who literally did everything and could do everything.”
Baker “survived so many encounters with sharks, polar bears, Somali pirates, hurricanes, and countless other scary near-death situations,” Atwood said. “My dad was prepared and fearless and never let anything get in the way of his curiosity and joy in exploration. He would never have wanted to die in any diminished way, and as deeply sad as we are, my dad died doing something he truly loved.”
Another son, Mitchell, lives in Provincetown with his husband.
Baker flew often out of the Pittsfield airport, where manager Gloria Bouillon said he was nicknamed “Stormin’ Norman” because he did not back away from bad weather.
Baker frequently flew alone, Bouillon said, and hearing his voice on the radio brought a smile to airport staff who knew how much he liked flying.
The crash is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. The wreckage of Baker’s 1966 Cessna was found Thursday morning by a local resident after previous searches by authorities had turned up nothing in the area.
Baker, who divided his time between Windsor and Milton, had served on the board of directors of the prestigious Explorers Club in New York. His colleague Jason Schoonover described Baker in an announcement of his death as “congenial, positive, a raconteur without equal, and always curious, always learning, always expanding his horizons.”
“He was genuinely fearless,” Schoonover wrote, “and when we didn’t have rivers with decent rapids to shoot, he’d express disappointment.”
In March, Baker broke his hip while skiing with Atwood and her family in Quebec. At age 87, he broke his neck while jumping horses.
“When he got the operation, he told the surgeon to make an extra turn with the wire because he planned to continue to jump horses,” Daniel Baker said with a slight chuckle.
As a 13-year-old in Brooklyn, N.Y., Baker won a contest by submitting a model airplane he had built out of balsa wood, his son said. The prize was flying lessons.
Baker’s thirst for adventure took him to seemingly boundless places — the ocean and the sky — but flying took up more of his time in later years, Daniel Baker said.
“Flying combined all the things that meant a lot to my dad. He loved being up in the air and having that big space — like being on an ocean — and he loved the technical aspects of flying,” he said.
“He loved that whole ritual of getting the plane ready, speaking to air-traffic control, and paying attention to the instruments. When you fly, you are always engaged,” added Daniel Baker, who described his father as a meticulous pilot with whom he flew often.
“It’s shocking to have his plane crashed,” Atwood said.
“He shaped my entire life. He truly, truly inspired me and my husband and kids,” Atwood said of her three children. “He’s had such a huge influence on their lives and inspired us to really question and explore and see the world as a place of incredible interest.”
Daniel Baker, who has two sets of twin girls, said that his father’s love of family and his wife, who died in 2003, left an indelible impact. “I am sure, at the last moment, he was thinking of her,” he said.Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.