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Missing fisherman sparks memory of pilot who went missing over Lake Erie in 1987

The disappearance of the Niagara Falls, Ont., fisherman on Lake Erie earlier this week has become an unsolved mystery after two days of extensive air and water searches turned up no sign of the man. Just the empty boat that washed up on a Hamburg beach with fishing poles, a couple of freshly caught fish and beer.

But it is not the first mystery to swirl in Lake Erie’s waters.

There also is the story of Daniel A. Poulos.

The morning of Dec. 31, 1986, was clear and Poulos was piloting a twin-engine cargo plane that took off at about 8:42 a.m. from the Chautauqua County Airport. Poulos was flying a return trip to Lockport, where the small airline he worked for - Buffalo Express - had a maintenance facility.

The next day, authorities found what were thought to be pieces of the Cessna 310 Poulos had been flying. More apparent wreckage was found four and five days after that.

The recovered pieces, which were found over what officials considered to be a wide area, were never conclusively identified as parts of the missing plane.

And Daniel Poulos was never found.

A week after the plane and its pilot disappeared, an attorney for his family told The Buffalo News they lacked closure.

“They are distraught, they are confused,” attorney Patrick J. Baker told The News. “Everybody assumes he crashed and died, but we have nothing to prove it. The family would like some finality. They’d like somebody to say, ‘There’s his body.’”

The investigation

On New Year’s Day 1987, a piece of aluminum was found in the lake about 3/4 of a mile off Derby. That same day, a piece of a wing tip was found near the mouth of Eighteen Mile Creek.

'That’s an awfully big distance apart,” Kevin Caffery, head of the Erie County Sheriff’s Investigative Services Division and its Underwater Recovery Team, said at the time. “It almost seems that the plane was coming apart in the air.”

A captain in the Civil Air Patrol said a resident reported hearing a small plane flying “very low,” but the aircraft didn’t sound like it had engine trouble.

 

A Buffalo News story about missing pilot Daniel Poulos from Jan. 15, 1987.

A Buffalo News story about missing pilot Daniel Poulos from Jan. 15, 1987.

There were no reports of anyone hearing an explosion. Poulos never radioed that he was in any kind of trouble.

After about a week, authorities called off the search for Poulos and the missing plane.

Initially, the owner of the airline Poulos worked for said he wasn’t flying for the company at the time he went missing. The owner later changed that story, acknowledging the pilot was working at the time.

Who was Dan Poulos?

Poulos was 40 when he disappeared. He was married twice and had three daughters. Having grown up in Williamsville, he graduated from Amherst High School and then Clarkson College of Technology.

He served in the Air Force and flew more than 260 combat missions in Vietnam, so his ability to fly was never considered a possible factor in the disappearance. Poulos worked a few jobs after getting out of the Air Force, including car salesman and investment counseling.

He also flew helicopters as a captain in the Army National Guard based in Niagara Falls. Some considered him a risky flyer, maybe even a “hot dog.”

These people pointed to an episode where Poulos was piloting one of three helicopters lined up to take off. Poulos’ chopper was the third in line, but he took off first from the rear position, nearly crashing into one of the others.

Some of his other actions also came under scrutiny.

The Federal Aviation Administration was looking into allegations Poulos flew too close to the World Trade Center during a flight over New York City.

A June 1987 story in The Buffalo News about the resumed search for Daniel Poulos.

A June 1987 story in The Buffalo News about the resumed search for Daniel Poulos.

IRS investigation

And that wasn’t the only investigation of Poulos.

The IRS was looking into some of his work as a precious-metals investment counselor in the early 1980s. The Erie County District Attorney’s Office was probing $35,000 in missing silver and what role, if any, Poulos may have played.

Even though he went missing, Poulos was indicted by a federal grand jury in May 1987 on charges of mail fraud and abetting others in the filing of false tax returns, according to a June 1, 1987, report by UPI.

Could those investigations have driven Poulos to commit suicide? Or even to fake his own death and flee?

Authorities did not rule out the theory that he may have bailed out of the plane and fled. Suicide was also a possibility.

Friends and family discounted those chances.

“Something like that would not even have crossed his mind,” said Rose Poulos, Daniel’s mother.

“He was a happy man. He had no reason to commit suicide or to do a disappearing act,” Ben Fogelson of Eden, a friend and former business associate, told The News.

The family tried searching again in June 1987, but found nothing.

email: abesecker@buffnews.com

 

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