The crashed Piper PA-11 on the Savage Island runway
The damaged plane after it was moved from the crash site to a barn on Savage Island.
The plane has been disassembled and placed in a barn on Savage Island until the owner can remove it.
GRAND ISLE — The sheriff who mounted a large-scale emergency response to a plane crash on a Lake Champlain island said the air national guardsmen who did not immediately notify authorities should face consequences.
The accident occurred Sept. 19 around noon on Savage Island, according to Grand Isle Sheriff Ray Allen. However, the crash of the airman’s personal plane wasn’t reported to authorities until six hours later when another pilot, flying over the privately owned island, saw the crashed single-prop Piper PA-11, and radioed the flight tower at Burlington International Airport, Allen said.
Air traffic controllers called Vermont State Police, who called in Allen. Believing he was dealing with an active crash scene, Allen dispatched two boats and called on Milton’s volunteer fire department to join the marine response.
Allen requested assistance from a U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopter out of Plattsburgh, New York, to help search the more than 200- acre island for the downed plane, but one of his deputies reached the scene in time to cancel that request.
The island’s caretaker, Wayne Fisher, told sheriffs that no one was injured and the pilot and his passenger were long gone, Allen said. Hours earlier, Fisher had ferried them back to Grand Isle, and drove them to the airport at Allenholm farm where their car was parked, the caretaker told Seven Days, which first reported the incident.
After an airplane accident that results in injury or “significant damage,” federal regulations require that the operator must “by the most expeditious means available, notify the nearest National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) office.”
It does not appear the two airmen involved did that, as the NTSB didn’t notify the Federal Aviation Administration workers at the Burlington airport.
“In my thinking, yeah, there ought to be some consequences,” Allen said. The response put his deputies and a group of volunteers at risk due to the lake’s low water level and because they left the island after dark, he said.
“If necessary agencies are informed ahead of time, we don’t have to treat this like it’s an active response situation,” Allen said.
Allen said failing to report an emergency happens frequently and is frustrating.
A few years ago, he said someone spotted light reflecting off the window of a car stuck in the ice on Lake Champlain. His department was called in, along with volunteers, who used specialized gear to trek out onto the ice, only to find the car was abandoned.
The car owner “was actually at home relaxing,” Allen said.
“If people are out there enjoying recreational activities, and something goes wrong, somebody else is going to see it and report it if they don’t,” Allen said, “It’s common sense.”
The FAA and NTSB are conducting a joint investigation of the accident. Scott Pratt, the FAA investigator handling the case, said depending on what his investigation finds, a suspension or revocation of the airmen’s private pilot license was possible.
The Piper PA-11 involved in the accident is registered to John Rahill. Rahill is a Lieutenant Colonel with the Vermont Air National Guard who flies F-16s and has deployed overseas a number of times, according to news reports unearthed by Seven Days.
VTANG spokesman Maj. Chris Gookin confirmed airmen were involved airmen, but declined to confirm the identity of the pilot or passenger, citing the ongoing investigation. Rahill did not return a call requesting comment.
George Moore, an aviation attorney who serves as an aviation legal expert for Plane & Pilot magazine, said the pilot should expect a letter from the FAA taking some type of action against their private pilot license.
“I think he’ll have to fight not to be suspended,” Moore said.
Moore noted that the standard for reporting an airplane accident with no injuries is “substantial damage,” and the pilot may argue on any appeal that he did believe that threshold was met.
However, a preliminary accident report on the FAA website lists the plane as “destroyed.” Moore said he believes there’s no doubt the NTSB should have been notified immediately. However, he said it’s understandable the pilot might not have felt any urgency to notify authorities.
““To be charitable, he might have thought ‘Why should I notify anyone?’” because there was no injuries, and the only people in the immediate area, the island’s caretaker, was aware of the situation.
“They’re not anticipating anyone getting all excited and notifying the FAA,” Moore added. “If you look at this from the pilot’s point of view it’s like ‘yeah I’ll take care of this later,’ I want to get back to my car.”
Moore said the FAA investigation may reveal that the pilot was not at fault for the accident or made efforts to minimize the damage. An investigation is underway.
Moore said it’s unlikely the incident will have any bearing on the pilot’s service as an airmen, noting that military pilots aren’t required to have civilian certifications.
If VTANG officials determine the airmen acted recklessly by not notifying authorities, they may ask them to undergo further training.
Being taken off flight duty is unlikely, Moore said.
During a brief interview, Maj. Gookin repeatedly referred to the situation as a “civilian matter,” and would not comment on whether disciplinary action was possible.
Pratt, the FAA investigator, said he didn’t know when the investigation will be completed.
FAA Flight Standards District Office: FAA Portland FSDO-65
NTSB Identification: GAA16CA495
14 CFR Part 91: General Aviation
Accident occurred Monday, September 19, 2016 in Grand Isle, VT
Aircraft: PIPER PA 11, registration: N4681M
NTSB investigators will use data provided by various entities, including, but not limited to, the Federal Aviation Administration and/or the operator, and will not travel in support of this investigation to prepare this aircraft accident report.
AIRCRAFT FORCE LANDED IN A FIELD, NEAR GRAND ISLE, VERMONT.
Aircraft Make: PIPER
Aircraft Model: PA11
Event Type: Accident
Highest Injury: None
Flight Phase: LANDING (LDG)
City: GRAND ISLE
National Guard Pilot Crashed Plane, Left Local Police in the Dark
An off-duty Vermont National Guard airman crashed a small private plane on a Lake Champlain island around noon Monday and left the scene with his passenger — another airman — apparently without calling police.
Local authorities found out about the badly damaged Piper PA-11 on Savage Island only after the pilot of another small plane noticed the wreckage six hours later while flying over the 207-acre island, according to Grand Isle County Sheriff Ray Allen.
That pilot radioed the tower at Burlington International Airport to report it. The tower staff contacted Vermont State Police, who in turn patched in Allen around 6 p.m.
Allen mobilized a massive response to what he thought was an active crash scene.
“There are lots of fire chiefs upset, myself included, along with other agencies, that this was an incident six hours old with no injuries — and nobody there,” Allen told Seven Days.
Had local authorities been alerted when the incident happened, an unnecessary large-scale response could have been prevented, Allen added. “This was a substantial amount of money and time wasted,” he said.
Federal regulations require a pilot involved in an accident to “immediately, and by the most expeditious means available, notify the nearest National Transportation Safety Board office.” The NTSB had a preliminary crash report on its website Thursday, but a spokesman could not say when the agency was notified.
Allen told Seven Days he contacted the FAA, along with the Milton Fire Department, and had six or seven boats from various agencies respond to the call. He even asked U.S. Customs and Border Protection to deploy a helicopter from its Plattsburgh, N.Y., base.
After Allen arrived at the scene and realized there was no emergency, he called off the helicopter. The island caretaker, Wayne Fisher, told Allen that the crash had happened around noon. Allen learned that Fisher had ferried the airmen off the island by boat and drove them to the Allenholm Airport, the small South Hero airstrip from which the duo had originally taken off.
Allen said the low water level exposed unseen obstacles that made it treacherous for the first responders to navigate the lake at night.
“By the time all resources were back in and my last boat came off the water, it was close to 8:30 p.m.,” Allen said.
Fisher told Seven Days that he had been in the basement of the island’s main house, then came upstairs and saw the damaged plane. It was on the grassy airstrip that runs through the private island, which is owned by members of the Riehle family.
The airmen were already out of the plane when Fisher reached it, according to the caretaker. They told him they were uninjured and that there hadn’t been any mechanical issues. Fisher said the pilot claimed to have landed and then tried a complicated takeoff maneuver that failed, resulting in the crash.
“They did make several calls. I don’t know to whom and the nature of the calls but they made several calls,” Fisher said. “They never asked me to call cops. And I didn’t feel like it was my responsibility; it wasn’t my accident. I didn’t have anything to do with it.”
Pictures of the scene show the tiny plane nose-down in the field with a broken wing. The FAA describes the two-seat aircraft, built in 1947, as “destroyed.”
The plane is registered to John Rahill, a lieutenant colonel in the Vermont Air National Guard. He did not respond to a phone call requesting comment. In April, he told NECN about flying an F-16 over Fenway Park for the Red Sox home opener in Boston. And in October 2015, he talked to WCAX after returning from a four-month stint in the Pacific. The deployment was his eighth overseas since joining the Vermont Air National Guard 15 years prior, Rahill told the station at the time.
The Guard issued a statement Tuesday confirming the crash involved airmen and said no further information would be released because of the FAA investigation.
“We appreciate the concern from the community and are happy that neither of our airmen were injured and are currently back at work,” the statement said.
Because no serious injury occurred, the NTSB will rely on information from the FAA “and/or the operator, and will not travel in support of this investigation to prepare this aircraft accident report,” the board says on its website.
The FAA did not come out to the scene, Fisher told Seven Days, but interviewed him by phone.
Sheriff Allen says 30 people, or more, were dispatched to Savage Island in Grand Isle County Monday after reports of a plane crash.
Allen says the response effort involved multiple marine vessels, volunteer firefighters and a U.S. Customs & Border Protection helicopter. The island is not accessible by any roadway.
“The volunteers, they're taking time away from their families, they're volunteering their time to go out,” said Sheriff Allen.
When they got there, they found a destroyed Piper PA-11. Nobody was with the plane.
“Rather surprised that nobody had reported the incident,” said Sheriff Allen. “It was probably about 6 hours prior when the crash actually occurred. The pilot or anybody, never reported it to the proper authorities as required to do so."
Sheriff Allen believes the plane crashed around noon Monday.
The Vermont Air National Guard confirmed earlier this week, two airmen were on board.
Sheriff Allen told Local 22/Local 44 News the pilot is John Rahill.
In an email Friday requesting information on Rahill’s rank, Guard spokesperson Capt. Tracy Morris responded: “We don't release information on members without their consent. It's for their own safety and operational security."
Sheriff Allen says the two Guardsmen were taken off the island by boat and brought back to the Burlington International Airport by the island’s caretaker.
As for the crash, pilots are required to immediately contact the National Transportation Safety Board following a crash.
NTSB Investigator Adam Gerhardt says the Board was notified about the incident but he is unsure of the timeline, saying “We are aware and we are investigating.”
“What is your reaction when you hear that they are Air National Guardsmen?” asked Local 22/Local44 News’ Staci DaSilva to Sheriff Ray Allen.
“A little surprised,” he responded. “I know the Guard, federal pilots, have very strict regulations and are up to date on all the requirements of the FAA and National Transportation Safety Board. I was stunned that they didn't ever notify anybody of the incident."
Sheriff Allen says the case, for now, is in the hands of the FAA.
“We're following the investigation out of the FAA and the NTSB and waiting to hear from them what they're going to do be doing or if they want to see any charges from the state of Vermont," he said.
Major Chris Gookin with the Vermont National Guard says the Guard has not been contacted, at this time, by the FAA.
In a statement sent Tuesday, Major Gookin wrote: “We appreciate the concern from the community and are happy that neither of our Airmen were injured and are currently back at work.
Due to the ongoing FAA investigation into this matter, we have no further details to release at this time.”