Maine’s island communities are beautiful, rugged and isolated places where neighbors often have to rely on each other when times get tough.
But they also relied on Kevin Waters, the owner of Penobscot Island Air. Waters, 62, died of natural causes Sunday night at his home in South Thomaston. His death shocked islanders who counted the pilot as one of their own, including Bill Trevaskis of North Haven, who drives an ambulance on the island.
“He’s a staple of the island. He loves his job. He loves his work,” Trevaskis said, struggling to describe the pilot in the past tense. “He was just so incredibly dedicated to the island community. He didn’t live here, but he was an unofficial mayor of sorts.”
After a 10-year stint in the U.S. Coast Guard, Waters worked as a pilot and headed the air charter and taxi service for Maine Atlantic Aviation when it discontinued service to the islands in mid-December 2004, citing huge annual losses.
Islanders were left in the lurch until Waters decided to launch Penobscot Island Air. The move endeared him to the communities he served, including Matinicus, located so far offshore that the state ferry service only runs once a month in the winter. Residents of that island raised $17,000 to help launch the fledgling company — a gift that Waters repaid many times over, islanders said.
Eva Murray, who lives on Matinicus, said that islanders knew taking on the airline was a huge undertaking.
“They scrambled around. Rented an airplane. They mortgaged their camps,” she said. “They did what they had to do to manage a rudimentary flying service so the islands wouldn’t be without mail and freight and all the other things.”
But Waters took on a monstrously complex job — and financial burden — so islanders could get what they needed, Murray said.
Waters and his crew delivered mail bags, medicine and birthday cakes, dropped off FedEx packages, picked up ailing pets who needed the emergency veterinarian and sick people who required extra care.
Jen Sargent Desmond is the clinical director at the Islands Community Medical Center, which serves Vinalhaven and Matinicus. When she first began her job 15 years ago, she worried about medical emergencies that happened in the middle of the night, or during conditions too rough for LifeFlight of Maine helicopters.
But Waters eased those fears.
“The number of times I called Penobscot Island Air and said the words, ‘Hey Kev, are you flying today?’ Hundreds of times. Thousands of times,” she said.
About 10 years ago, one of her patients was in great distress. It was winter, getting dark and starting to snow, so LifeFlight couldn’t make it. Desmond called Waters and asked him if he was flying. He told her no — his planes had been buttoned down for the night.
Then Waters asked her why.
“I do the thing you’re not supposed to do because a pilot’s supposed to be objective. I say to him, ‘I’m in a tough spot with a patient,’” she remembered. “He said, ‘I’m coming.’”
Waters picked them up and flew to the mainland as Desmond administered morphine to the patient. When they landed at the airport, an ambulance crew was waiting.
“After the ambulance left, Kevin gives me this huge hug and said, ‘Let’s get you home,’” she said. “That was him. He knew when my job was really hard. He would always say, ‘You’re fighting the good fight, Jen. God love you.’ He was such a bright spot in my day, in those awful times when you’re with a patient who is struggling.”
Running the air service wasn’t easy, and was sometimes tragic. In 2011, after two crashes in three months, Waters voluntarily grounded his fleet for a short time. In the first instance, a plane crash-landed on the ocean near Matinicus, with three passengers and a pilot able to escape but some suffering serious injuries. In the second, pilot Don Campbell crashed and died on Matinicus as he was about to land with a load of groceries.
“They had some tough times, some horrible times,” Desmond said. “So many other people would have said, ‘I’m not going to keep doing this.’ But he didn’t. I truly believe he felt the islands were special, and he just really loved the islands.”
Peter Ralston, a co-founder of the Island Institute in Rockland, agreed.
“He was a beautiful human being. He really did have a heart bigger than Penobscot Bay,” he said. “Around here, Kevin was an unsung hero in many ways. He was really extraordinary. He saved lives and kept communities going.”
Penobscot Island Air will continue, according to longtime pilot Brud Folger, who said that Waters’ wife, Terry Waters, will serve as president of the corporation.
“We’re still flying,” Folger said. “Still in business, still maintaining [Waters’] caring and enthusiastic attitude and professionalism.”