HOULTON, Maine — The wreckage of a small plane that went missing early Thursday morning was found just before 9 a.m. in a wooded area about a mile from the runway at Houlton International Airport.
Parts of the plane were found in a small man-made pond off White Settlement Road while a wing and other debris were found on the ground and in trees surrounding the area, according to Houlton Police Chief Joe McKenna.
The body of the pilot, the sole occupant of the four-person aircraft, was recovered late Thursday afternoon and will be transported to the state medical examiner’s office in Augusta for identification, though officials are fairly certain who it is, McKenna said.
Police were not expected to release the man’s name until he has officially been identified.
The wreckage will be taken to a hanger at the Houlton airport for reconstruction as part of the ongoing investigation of the crash, according to the police chief.
Officials with the Federal Aviation Administration had arrived on the scene by late Thursday afternoon and were expected to be joined by investigators with the National Transportation and Safety Board later in the day, McKenna said.
It appeared the plane had clipped some trees while approaching the airport in dense fog and flipped over into the pond. Searchers on the ground came upon the pond and noticed floating debris, according to Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety.
Firefighters from the Houlton Fire Department drained roughly 100,000 gallons of water — or about half the pond — Thursday to get at the cockpit where they found the body of the pilot, McKenna said.
He said the divers would have had a difficult time finding anything in the murky water that nearby residents described as being 30 feet deep in some spots.
The twin-engine Piper PA34 was due at the Houlton International Airport around 1 a.m. Thursday after leaving the airport in Goose Bay, Labrador, at about 9:15 p.m. Wednesday. McKenna said officials believe the flight originated in Europe and was on its way to Florida.
Officials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection were at the airport in Houlton to meet the plane as it entered the U.S. and reported that it was an hour overdue, McKenna said.
At 2 a.m. the customs officials reported hearing the plane approach the airport on its designated flight path from the south. Soon after, they reported hearing what sounded like the engines failing and a crashing sound.
McKenna said there was “zero visibility” at the time because of fog conditions, and a search was started immediately off the runway.
The police chief said the pilot was well known in the Houlton area because he regularly made stops at the local airport while on his way to a flight school in Florida.
According to Benjamin Torres, the fixed- base operator at the Houlton airport, the pilot is a native of France and has made a half dozen or more stops at the airport over the years ferrying planes.
Early Thursday afternoon Torres said he was shocked when he learned of the accident around 2:45 a.m. and speculated conditions at the time played a major role.
“When I got to the airport I pulled out my portable radio and called the weather service,” Torres said. “They indicated there was less than a mile visibility and there was 300 feet from the ground to the [cloud] ceiling, but where I was standing I observed fog all the way down to the deck.”
Torres said the pilot, who he estimates had more than 1,000 hours of flight time, was attempting to land on runway 5, which is equipped for an instrument approach.
“That plane was equipped for an instrument landing,” Torres said. “But he may not have known where he was at the time and made a ‘controlled flight into terrain,’ meaning he was not where he thought he was until he was in trouble and it was too late.”
Given the conditions, Torres said he was surprised the pilot opted to land in Houlton, but speculated he may have been anxious to get on the ground after his flight from Goose Bay which lasted just under five hours.
According to the website flightaware.com, the pilot’s logged flight plan from Goose Bay to Houlton was 625 miles and he actually flew 640 miles before crashing. The flight plan indicates the plane was owned by Growl Inc., of Merritt Island, Florida.
According to the aircraft manufacturer’s website, the Piper PA34 has a range of 828 nautical miles with 45 minutes of reserve fuel.
Information on flightware.com indicates the distance between Goose Bay and Houlton is 597 miles.
“I know this gentleman,” Torres said. “He’s a really good guy and I am sorry [it happened]. He has time in that craft [and] he is no stranger to aviation, that is for sure.”
The pilot’s last known contact was with air traffic control officials out of Boston, when the plane was 4.5 miles from the airport, McKenna said.
According to flightaware.com, the final contact between the plane and Boston was at 1:54 a.m. as the the pilot was on a northeast trajectory, 1,500 feet off the ground and traveling at a ground speed of 135 mph.
One neighboring resident, who declined to give his name to the press, said Thursday he heard what sounded like a lawn mower engine struggling to stay running earlier that morning. He stated he did not hear any crashing sounds, so he assumed the engine belonged to an all-terrain vehicle going down the road.
“It wasn’t flying very high for an airplane, because I thought it was something going up the road,” the man said.
Before the wreckage was found, personnel with the Houlton Police Department, Maine State Police, Aroostook County Sheriff’s Office, Maine Forest Service and border patrol were involved in an extensive ground and air search of the area, which McKenna described as mixed woodland, swamp and mountains.
Because the flight path followed the border with New Brunswick, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police also were involved in the search, McKenna said.
As first responders and investigators worked at the crash site Thursday, a deputy with the sheriff’s office stood beside his cruiser up the road to keep members of the press and other individuals from approaching the scene.
Houlton Pioneer Times writer Joseph Cyr contributed to this report.