Maine’s aviation community has lost five pilots in the past four weeks in an unusual string of small-plane crashes.

The three fatal accidents happened in different parts of the state, under different circumstances. But collectively, the losses are a blow to the state’s small cadre of fliers, many of whom lost close friends or mentors.

“It just seems like, boy, there’s been a lot of bad accidents,” said Diana Chase of Limington, a student pilot who knew several of the crash victims. “All I can think of is that it’s been a summer (with clear weather) and we can fly more. Maybe it’s just increasing the odds.”

The series of accidents began July 17, when a small Russian-built aircraft hit the ground near the Portland International Jetport, killing the pilot, Mark Haskell of Brunswick, and his passenger, Thomas Casagrande of Portland.

Another well-known pilot, Telford Allen II, died Aug. 1 when his float plane flipped while landing on the Moose River north of Greenville.

And on Saturday, two more pilots, George Fortin of Naples and Tony Kalinuk of Harrison, died when Fortin’s vintage aircraft crashed into the woods in Harrison.

There also have been two close calls. A small plane crashed in Abrams Pond in Franklin on Aug. 1, and another crashed into Brandy Pond in Naples on Aug. 8. In those crashes, the pilots and passengers escaped and survived.

So many crashes and fatalities in such a short time is clearly unusual, although it’s too soon to say whether there is any general rise in the state’s accident rate.

National Transportation Safety Board records show that Maine’s most recent fatal aviation accident before July 17 occurred in January, when a commercial pilot crashed a small plane into the Penobscot River near Old Town.

There were no passengers on the plane.

Maine had no fatal aviation accidents in 2009, according to the database.

In 2008, six people died in four accidents — the same number of accidents and fatalities experienced so far this year.

Any crash in Maine is followed closely by the state’s aviators. The recent accidents have touched many of them personally because the victims were well-known pilots and were active in the aviation community.

“Any time there’s a crash, everybody wants to know why, so that it doesn’t happen again,” said Robert Pomerleau, president of the Experimental Aircraft Association in Limington.

Fortin and Kalinuk were good pilots and were active in the association, from cooking at pancake breakfasts to flight-teaching teenagers about aviation, Pomerleau said.

The loss of the two men has especially saddened members of the club, he said, but it won’t diminish their enthusiasm for flying.

“Everybody thinks twice, but it’s no different than getting on a motorcycle or going scuba diving,” he said. With precautions, “I still feel it’s a safe environment to be in.”

Pomerleau and other pilots said they didn’t need the crashes to remind them of the risks and the need to follow safety procedures and check equipment.

“It’s something that we think about all the time,” said Luke Bassett of Windham, vice president of the Portland-based Bald Eagle Flying Club. “Every pilot goes through a specific set of checklist items. We sort of live by that.”

Bassett was a friend of Casagrande, a decorated and widely respected pilot who died in the crash on July 17.

There doesn’t appear to be any single explanation for the string of fatal accidents, Bassett said, except maybe that more people are spending more time flying this summer.

He said, “There’s no systemic issue here. There’s no unsafe practices that people are doing. I don’t see anything but chance here.”

Maine has an active community of pilots and small-plane owners in part because it has so many remote places where they can fly, said Chase, the student pilot, a former manager of Limington’s airport.

And Maine pilots tend to know one another from fly-ins, air shows or meetings about aviation safety, she said.

Chase, for example, is a member of the club that included Fortin and Kalinuk, and she knew Casagrande and Haskell from various pilots’ gatherings.

She had never met Telford, but knew of him and his aviation company, she said.

The loss of so many pilots won’t keep her from flying, but it will make her more careful, Chase said.

“We’re human. We get complacent about things,” she said. “My only change in attitude is to make sure I’m thorough in preflight planning.”

Chase and her husband, who’s also a pilot, were preparing to fly a small plane to New Hampshire on Saturday when George Fortin taxied up behind them at the Limington airport.

Fortin, who was going to pick up Kalinuk in Harrison for a short flight, spoke to the couple briefly on the radio.

“He said, ‘Have a good flight,’ and we just said, ‘You, too, George. Have a good flight.’“

Later, Chase said, “We got back, and he wasn’t there.”

 

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: [email protected]