The crashed Piper PA-11 on the Savage Island runway
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.
The damaged plane after it was moved from the crash site to a barn on Savage Island
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.
The plane has been disassembled and placed in a barn on Savage Island until the owner can remove it.
“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.