MATINICUS, Maine — The crumpled wreck of a green and white Cessna 207 marks the spot in the spruce forest where Penobscot Island Air pilot Don Campbell crashed and died Wednesday on Matinicus Island.
The bright flowers strewn nearby and a wooden cross decorated with a tiny plane and the words “We Miss You Don,” are small symbols of just how much islanders cared about the longtime air service pilot, who was 57.
Ann Mitchell, who drives the island taxi, came to the crash site Saturday afternoon with her family. Tears came to her eyes easily as she talked about Campbell, who had been about to land with a load of groceries when a sudden gust of wind appeared to come up. He was alone in the Cessna when it went down in the woods.
“It’s how unexpected and quick something can happen to someone who’s the most careful person you know,” she said. “And how we’re at the mercy of so many things out here. Especially the weather.”
After the crash, owner Kevin Waters decided to voluntarily ground his fleet while federal officials began investigating the crash, which is the air service’s second in three months near Matinicus. In July, a plane crash-landed on the ocean near the island, with the three passengers and pilot able to escape.
But Friday night, Waters and others at the air service decided to start flying again Saturday morning. The news came as a relief to islanders, who described the air service as a “lifeline” that connects them to the mainland.
“We can’t exist without it,” said Bill Hoadley, who runs the island’s only bed-and-breakfast.
Pilot David Bellows made the first flight back to Matinicus on Saturday. He has been with the air service for 2½ years.
“It doesn’t seem real yet,” he said of Campbell’s death. “I’m sure it’s going to.”
Islanders said the pilots deliver groceries, medicine, mail and more in all months of the year. In the winter, the state ferry makes just one trip to Matinicus each month.
“The flying service, they are like family to us,” said lifelong islander Natalie Ames. “I put my children on that plane by themselves. I have total trust in them. They’re part of our extended community. They might be on the mainland, but they feel like they’re part of Matinicus.”
When her son, Gardner, was a baby, he got sick in December, when the weather “did not look good.”
“Don came out to get us, and I knew that he would never put our family at risk,” Ames said, her voice suffused with emotion. “I always felt so safe flying with Don. This is just so hard.”
Many islanders were planning to attend the pilot’s funeral Sunday afternoon in Waldoboro.
Waters said air service pilots would perform a missing man formation at his interment.
“It’s very sad, for sure,” he said Saturday afternoon in the Penobscot Island Air headquarters at Knox County Regional Airport in Owls Head. “We’re now looking out for [Campbell’s] family. Taking care of some of their issues.”
The office was full of flowers, fruit baskets and cards sent after the pilot’s death.
“It’s unbelievable,” Waters said. “A lot of people have shared love and thoughts and prayers when they didn’t have to.”
Robyn Campbell, the pilot’s widow, said this week that her husband was a retired U.S. Army aviation mechanic who was her best friend and a devoted dad to their daughter, Elizabeth.
Islanders described him as always having a smile on his face.
“He was always so upbeat and positive,” Ames said. “And you just knew he wasn’t going to take any chances.”