BANGOR, Maine — Within minutes of hearing that a small plane might have crashed just north of Old Town on Monday morning, volunteer search and rescue personnel from Down East Emergency Medicine Institute prepared to take to the skies to hunt for the aircraft.
DEEMI personnel took digital high-resolution aerial photographs of the search area and joined two other search planes from the Maine Forest Service and the Maine Warden Service that circled Olamon Island where the plane’s transponder beacon indicated the aircraft was located.
Because the mostly white plane crashed nose-down and was half-submerged in a small stream that cuts through the center of the snow-covered island, finding it proved difficult.
“We went right over that area a couple of times,” Isaac Greenlaw, an EMT for Capital Ambulance and photographer for DEEMI, said Tuesday while standing in the general aviation terminal at Bangor International Airport reviewing the 150 photos he took Monday of the island and surrounding area. “We had just turned and then we saw two guys on a wing. I got images of the guys on their knees trying to get in” the cockpit.
Veteran pilot James Beaton, 78, of Wales in Great Britain, took off from BIA on Monday morning on the first leg of a trip to deliver the Cessna Skyhawk to Russia. Shortly after takeoff, he contacted BIA’s tower to say he was turning around because his plane was icing and he was going to attempt an emergency landing at Old Town’s DeWitt Field.
He crashed 10 miles short of the small municipal airfield and died as a result.
The Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at Tyndall Air Force Base, Panama City, Fla., called Maine State Police at 11:06 a.m. to say the airplane’s emergency transponder was going off, Lt. Wesley Hussey, commander of Troop E Orono, said Monday.
“We were hoping we’d find him waving at us,” said Richard Bowie, DEEMI director, who had met Beaton on several occasions during his layovers in Bangor. “To say he was a kind and gentle soul would be mild. Once a month or so, he’d come through.”
Game Warden Dave Georgia along with Penobscot Nation firefighters John Neptune, Joe Dana and Eric Sappier took a canoe to the island and trudged through the snow looking for the downed plane. They found it submerged in the stream around 1 p.m. Monday.
Divers were needed to recover Beaton from inside the cockpit, which was underwater. His body was taken Monday evening to the medical examiner’s office in Augusta.
The “aircraft crashed after reporting severe turbulence and icing,” the Federal Aviation Administration’s preliminary accident data state.
“We’re investigating the accident,” Arlene Salac, FAA spokeswoman, said Tuesday afternoon by phone from New York. “It’s something we always do. We sent an inspector up there today.”
Because the plane remains in the stream, the investigator must wait until it has been recovered, she said, adding that the remote crash scene has hampered the effort.
“What we’ll do, when we’re able to examine the aircraft, will provide a report to the National Transportation Safety Board,” Salac said. “They’re a separate agency and they’re the ones who will make the final determination on the cause of the accident.”
The Penobscot Indian Nation island where Beaton crashed is located west of Route 2, near the town lines of Greenbush and Passadumkeag, and has only one year-round resident.
Gaining access to the island, which is accessible only by boat, was a problem, officials said. A hovercraft shared by Bangor and Brewer fire departments was called in to assist with getting personnel safely over the partially ice-crusted but fast-moving river water. A rope eventually was extended across a small canal that separates the island and the Route 2 riverbank and was used with canoes to get emergency responders and supplies onto the island.
In addition to state police and Penobscot Nation firefighters, Penobscot Nation game wardens, Maine Air National Guard crews from BIA, firefighters and rescue personnel from Milford, Greenbush and Old Town assisted at the scene.
Don Ratliff, owner of American King Air Services in Mount Pleasant, S.C., hired Beaton to deliver the four-seat Cessna to St. Petersburg University’s flight school in Russia.
“He had about 15,000 hours [of flying experience] in over 100 different types of airplane,” Ratliff said by phone Tuesday. “He’s flown everything, all the way up to jets. He’s probably been flying for 50 years, maybe more.
“It’s very sad,” he added. “He was well-known in the business and well-respected. He was a nice man, a very nice man.”
The small fixed-wing plane was built in Kansas and was delivered to Bangor last week.
“The airplane came from the factory to Bangor, and Telford [Aviation Group] installed a long-range fuel system,” Ratliff said. “One extra 125-gallon [tank was added]. It boosts the range from five to six hours of flight time to 17 or 18 hours.”
Beaton, from the Welsh community of Newtown, was married and had one adult daughter who lives in France with her husband, according to the WalesOnline.co.uk Web site.
“I have spoken to his wife, and she is distraught,” said Geoff Rosenbloom, who learned to fly with Beaton more than 50 years ago, the Web site reported.
Rosenbloom owns Computaplane, a Glasgow, Scotland-based company where Beaton worked that transports planes all over the world.
Beaton had been in Bangor since Friday waiting for the weather to clear up enough for him to take off, his former boss said.
“He was being careful,” Rosenbloom said. “He was a very experienced pilot with many North Atlantic crossings.”
Bowie said Beaton was compelled to head toward home because of a sick family member.
“He really should not have gone,” he said. “He had some issues with his family. When you’ve got to go — that is the worse time to fly.”
During the search for Beaton’s plane, Al Jenkins piloted the DEEMI plane while Greenlaw took photos. Once the DEEMI plane landed at BIA, Greenlaw e-mailed the images to Maine State Police.
“Ten minutes later, they had the image on their desktops,” Bowie said.
Having the aerial images gave incident commanders a better view of what the isolated scene looked like, helping them to assess equipment and personnel needs, he said.