October 20, 2019
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Air service grounded after fatal Matinicus Island crash

John Clarke Russ | BDN
John Clarke Russ | BDN
An aerial view of Matinicus Island seen from one of Penobscot Island Air's Cessna 206 planes in 2005.

ROCKLAND, Maine — After a plane crash Wednesday on Matinicus Island that left the pilot dead, Penobscot Island Air service has halted all further flights pending the results of a federal safety investigation.

It was the air service’s second crash in less than three months off Matinicus. In July, a plane went down near the island and the three passengers and pilot were able to escape. The passengers were hospitalized but all survived.

“We voluntarily grounded the fleet until we find out what’s going on,” Penobscot Island Air Service Chief Pilot Roger Wolverton said Thursday. “We’re waiting for the [National Transportation Safety Board] to do its investigation. The scene has been secured by the Sheriff’s Department. We’re kind of on hold right now.”

He said that the pilot, 57-year-old Donald Campbell of Waldoboro, had been with the air service since its inception in 2004. He previously had been a U.S. Army aviation mechanic.

“He’s a nice guy and I enjoyed working with him,” Wolverton said. “He was a good, cautious pilot. It’s very unfortunate that this happened.”

Campbell had been making a grocery run to Matinicus, the final flight of the day, and had left Knox County Regional Airport at 5:15 p.m. with no one else on board the Cessna 207. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the plane flipped and crashed about 5:30 p.m. in woods on Matinicus Island while attempting to land on the island’s dirt runway.

Robyn Campbell, the pilot’s widow, said she had been worried her husband’s body would have been left in the plane overnight. Then she learned that the people of Matinicus took him out of the plane, brought him to the church and had a service for him there.

“My husband loved the people of Matinicus,” she said Thursday afternoon. “I should have known I didn’t have anything to worry about with them.”

At the time of the crash, conditions on the island were windy, with sustained winds of 30 knots (34 mph) and gusts of up to 37 knots (42 mph), according to the National Weather Service website.

According to Wolverton, the pilots get weather and wind information from an automatic weather observation system at the airport in Owls Head and also from the National Weather Service’s station at Matinicus Rock.

Although the dirt runway is “relatively short” at 1,700 feet, Wolverton said that wasn’t a factor in the crash.

He said that each pilot has the choice to fly or not fly because of weather concerns, but at least half a dozen flights safely landed and took off from Matinicus, located 22 miles off the mainland, on Wednesday.

Maine’s offshore island communities have had an air service since the late 1940s, with pilot Kevin Waters establishing Penobscot Island Air in 2004. The service has contracts with the U.S. Postal Service, Federal Express, United Parcel Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Its fleet of Cessna 206 and 207 planes makes regularly scheduled trips to Vinalhaven, North Haven and Matinicus Island.

For the 40 or so year-round residents of Matinicus, the air service is “absolutely a lifeline,” said Rob Snyder, executive vice president of the Rockland-based Island Institute.

“It’s the way to get on and off. It’s the way to meet your medical needs. It’s how you get your groceries. It’s how you get your mail,” he said. “It makes life on Matinicus easier and more possible. It’s absolutely essential.”

In the wintertime, the boat from the Maine State Ferry Service comes just once a month, with weekly trips made from June through September. That means that islanders depend on Penobscot Island Air, Snyder said, and get to know each pilot quite well.

“This is really a loss of the extended family of that island,” he said. “I know it’s devastating to each of them personally.”

The Maine Seacoast Mission boat Sunbeam also periodically visits Matinicus. A mission official said Thursday that when the Rev. Rob Benson heard about the plane crash, he took the Sunbeam over to Matinicus to assist the islanders in a time of grieving.

Robyn Campbell said that her husband loved flying for Penobscot Island Air and also meeting the islanders from the different communities.

“He absolutely loved flying. That was the highlight of his life,” she said. “He died doing what he loved most in the world. That is the biggest consolation.”

Another consolation is knowing that he died instantly.

She said that after retiring from the U.S. Army, her husband wanted to come home to be near his parents, Clyde and Ada Campbell of Waldoboro. The couple also has a 19-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, who was extremely close to her father.

When he wasn’t flying, Donald Campbell enjoyed riding his Harley-Davidson motorcycle and was a member of the Star Touring and Riding group.

“He was a wonderful, wonderful husband and father. And my best friend,” she said. “We would have been married 29 years on Oct. 16. I was really proud of that.”

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