CLEAR LAKE, Maine — A warden pilot with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife died Thursday night when his plane crashed on Clear Lake in a remote section of Piscataquis County, department officials said Friday.
Daryl Gordon, 60, of Eagle Lake was a 25-year veteran of the Maine Warden Service.
He and his plane were found after an intensive overnight search that included his colleagues from the warden service, the Maine Forest Service, Maine State Police, the Houlton Air Branch of Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Border Patrol and Civil Air Patrol, according to DIF&W spokeswoman Deborah Turcotte.
A joint investigation is being conducted by the Maine Warden Service, the Maine State Police, the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board, she said.
The search for Gordon began about 8 p.m. Thursday. His wife, Rita, reported him missing after he did not return to their Eagle Lake home from his day on patrol, Col. Joel Wilkinson said Friday during a somber news conference at the department’s Bangor office.
The Red 185 Cessna he was flying alone was located about 8:50 a.m. Friday when a signal from an aircraft emergency locator transmitter was picked up by a Civil Air Patrol plane, Wilkinson said. A Maine Forest Service helicopter and a Civil Air Patrol plane found the pilot and his plane on the frozen lake.
Gordon’s untimely death stunned and saddened those who worked with him.
“I will tell you this has been the toughest day of my career with the warden service and the toughest day of a lot of game wardens’ careers. … I will ask all of you to bear with me and do my best to get through this. We’ve been up, most of our staff, all night and through the day conducting this search,” Wilkinson said as he opened the news conference, flanked by uniformed game wardens and state police troopers.
To the right of his podium stood a warden service flag with a black band running across it, topped with black ribbons bearing the names and years of service of the 14 wardens who died in the line of duty before Gordon. At the foot of the flagpole stood one of the warden service’s traditional red-and-black dress uniforms and a pair of black leather boots.
“This has been a difficult day for the warden service and one I never wanted to experience as chief of the Maine Warden Service,” Wilkinson said, his voice breaking with emotion.
“We lost a devoted pilot whose service to the state of Maine has been extraordinary,” he said. “So many people have had loved ones returned to them through the aerial search and rescue efforts of this gentleman. Without him, a lot of lives would not have been saved.”
According to Wilkinson, Gordon had been at the warden service’s seaplane base in Greenville earlier in the day. He said Gordon dropped off his plane for scheduled maintenance and then left in another warden service plane about 2 p.m.
In the hours before the crash, Gordon had been flying general patrol north of Moosehead Lake, providing information for law enforcement and wardens working on the ground and surveying the area for deer.
During that patrol, Gordon learned that Warden Andrew Smart was stuck with his snowmobile in deep slush on Eagle Lake, located in Township 8 Range 13 WELS in Piscataquis County, along the Allagash Waterway.
Gordon found Smart and landed on the lake to help him. The two flew to another location to retrieve a come-along that they then used to free the mired snowmobile. Afterward, Smart and Gordon parted ways, Wilkinson said.
Gordon last was seen by Smart about 4 p.m. as he flew up the lake in the direction of his home base.
Smart said there were snow squalls in the area as Gordon flew away, according to Wilkinson. He said Gordon did not express any concerns about the weather conditions before the crash.
At the time of the crash, Gordon’s Cessna was equipped with skis, enabling him to land on frozen surfaces, Wilkinson said.
The plane also was equipped with two locating devices. One was a Web-based satellite tracking device present on all state planes that allows state Department of Public Safety dispatchers to monitor their location for emergency calls. The other was an emergency locator transmitter, which transmits a radio signal in the event of a crash, Wilkinson said.
He said the last signal transmitted by the satellite tracking device confirmed that Gordon was in the area of Eagle Lake, where he assisted Smart.
According to Wilkinson, the search for Gordon was intensive. Dozens of game wardens and nine aircraft were deployed — two from the warden service, two from Civil Air Patrol, a Customs and Border Protection helicopter, two helicopters and a fixed-wing plane from the state Department of Conservation and a U.S. Border Patrol helicopter.
Three of the aircraft had infrared search capabilities, he said. They flew until about 3 a.m. and resumed the search at 7 a.m.
Also searching for Gordon were personnel from the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and the Maine Department of Public Safety. Customs and Border Protection and the Forest Service brought investigators to the scene.
Gordon was one of only three pilots assigned to the warden service, Wilkinson said. As such, he was responsible for covering a vast area encompassing all of Aroostook County and parts of Piscataquis and Washington counties. His work took him over some of the state’s most remote and rugged terrain and through some of Maine’s most severe weather.
“A lot of time snow squalls develop and there’s some bad weather that develops that we don’t even see in Bangor or see in Augusta,” Wilkinson said. “[Warden pilots] are constantly trying to jump from bodies of water to other bodies of water and get around those particular snow squalls and bad weather. It appears that pilot Gordon was on his way home and found himself in one of those situations, potentially.”
“He came down in a manner that is not consistent with standard landing on skis. Why that occurred, we’re not certain,” Wilkinson said. “We’re hoping the details of the investigation by the NTSB and the FAA will provide us some answers to that.”
Gordon was the 15th game warden, and the third warden pilot, to die in the line of duty in the warden service’s 130-year history, Wilkinson said.
“He died doing what he loved,” Wilkinson said. “His professional goal with the warden service was to one day be a warden pilot, and I’ve never seen him as happy as when he was flying.
“When I met with his wife today, those were some of the things that we talked about — the fact that he was so happy. He really was. He was absolutely ecstatic, pleased and proud to wear the uniform,” Wilkinson said.
Wilkinson said Gordon’s body will be brought to the Maine medical examiner’s office in Augusta for an autopsy. An honor guard of wardens will remain with their colleague until his funeral service is completed.
In addition to his wife, Gordon is survived by two sons, Daryl Gordon Jr. and James Gordon III. Funeral arrangements had yet to be set as of late Friday.
Dennis Diaz, an investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board, is expected to arrive at the crash site early Saturday morning, according to NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson. He said the insurance carrier later would remove the aircraft to a secure location pending the results of the investigation.
Arlene Salac, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said Friday that the crash occurred about two miles north of Churchill Depot. Salac said the FAA will be assisting the NTSB in the investigation.
“I am deeply saddened to learn about the death of Daryl Gordon,” Gov. Paul LePage said in a statement Friday afternoon.
“During his 25 years of service, Daryl touched the lives of countless families as a search and rescue pilot bringing lost loved ones back to safety,” the governor said. “He will be remembered for his untiring dedication and service to our state. My most sincere condolences go out to Daryl’s family during this difficult time.”
LePage added that Gordon also will be greatly missed by warden service comrades. “My thoughts are with those who had the opportunity to work with him through the years,” he said.
David Roberts of the Piscataquis County Sheriff’s Department agreed: ‘’Gordon was a real top-notch person.”
According to Maine Department of Public Safety spokesman Stephen McCausland, Gordon was the 83rd Maine law enforcement officer to die in the line of duty. All 83 officers will be honored May 19 at the annual observance at the Maine Law Enforcement Officers Memorial on State Street in Augusta, McCausland said.
A 1968 graduate of Hartland Academy, Gordon joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1969. He served 18 months of active duty, 12 of them in Vietnam, where he was promoted to corporal and platoon commander and was in charge of 12 Marines and 25 Vietnamese troops.
In February 1986, at the age of 35, Gordon joined the warden service, working out of Calais, Lincoln, Skowhegan and Bingham before being promoted to pilot in June 2004. At the time of his death, Gordon had more than 12 years flying experience, according to Wilkinson. His warden service honors include an Exemplary Service Award in 2009.