2011-12-10 / Top News

Island Community Loses Two Men in Plane Crash

Crews Aid in Exhaustive Search for Local Pilot and Passenger; Investigation Underway: What Brought Down Plane Bound for Island?
By Karen Gould


The plane wreckage rests deep in a wooded area between the Lake Huron shoreline and Mackinac Trail just north of St. Ignace. A massive search for the plane was conducted by multiple agencies. 
(Photograph courtesy of Michigan State Police) The plane wreckage rests deep in a wooded area between the Lake Huron shoreline and Mackinac Trail just north of St. Ignace. A massive search for the plane was conducted by multiple agencies. (Photograph courtesy of Michigan State Police) Joe Pann of St. Ignace and Tom Phillips of Mackinac Island died in a plane crash on a flight from St. Ignace to Mackinac Island Saturday night, December 3. The wreckage of their singleengine plane was found Sunday 1.3 miles north of the airport, in heavy woods off Mackinac Trail in St. Ignace Township.

The accident is being investigated and the cause is unknown. Rain and fog dominated the weather in the area all day Saturday, but it is uncertain what role these or other factors may have played in the accident.

The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board arrived in St. Ignace Monday, December 5. A preliminary report is expected by the end of the week. A final report could take six months.


Almost lost amid the trees, one blade remains attached to the engine of the Piper Cherokee 6. Almost lost amid the trees, one blade remains attached to the engine of the Piper Cherokee 6. The single-engine Piper Cherokee 6 took off from the Mackinac County Airport at 8 p.m. on a flight that should have taken approximately six minutes on a route that would run 4.5 miles over Lake Huron. On board were experienced pilot Joe Pann, 29, of St. Ignace, and passenger Tom Phillips, 52, of Kirkland, Washington, and Mackinac Island. Mr. Phillips, an Amazon.com executive, owns an East Bluff cottage on Mackinac Island.

Mr. Pann was a first-rate pilot, said Paul Fullerton, owner of Great Lakes Air, which provides the air service between St. Ignace and Mackinac Island.

Originally from Curtis, Mr. Pann had been with the company for a year. He and his wife, Andrea, have a two-month-old son, Axel.

“Joe has been a great employee,” said Mr. Fullerton, who also noted his experience in the cockpit. Other coworkers praised his friendliness and kindness.


This map shows the locations of the airports, and the site of the airplane wreckage. This map shows the locations of the airports, and the site of the airplane wreckage. “He flew all the airplanes, the twin [engine] and everything else. He was just an excellent pilot.”

Mr. Fullerton also knew the passenger, Mr. Phillips.

“He was a wonderful guy,” he said. “He was a pilot. Recently learned to fly, recently instru- ment rated, a very friendly man.”

Mr. Phillips reportedly was to inspect his cottage, the former Terwilliger cottage, in preparation for a family Christmas on the Island. The Amazon.com executive and former Microsoft executive was known and respected in technology and business circles, and the news of his death was carried internationally.

Given the conditions and the route, the circumstances of the crash are puzzling, Mr. Fullerton said.

“I haven’t a clue why this happened,” he said. “It’s pretty disturbing. It just doesn’t make any sense.”

The weather report from automated equipment at the Mackinac Island Airport recorded conditions were “pretty good” there when the flight would have left St. Ignace, said Mr. Fullerton.

“But I came down from the Soo, and all the way down I was in and out of fog, and it was raining the whole way,” he recalled. “Overall, the weather wasn’t very good, but I still don’t want to prejudge this at all. I want the experts to do their job so they can determine what really happened.

“There wasn’t any icing, none of that,” he added. “Temperatures were warm enough.”

The plane took off from the Mackinac County Airport heading to the west, toward the I-75 expressway, a normal takeoff for the Island depending on wind conditions.

“I don’t know where he went from there,” said Mr. Fullerton. “I don’t know if he got over by the Island and was trying to get back here because the weather was bad. I don’t know if he got up in the air and went to the right trying to get around it [the weather], I have no idea. I know he took off that way [west] and he ended up there, and that’s all I know.”

The airport traffic pattern is left, and, accordingly, pilots normally would turn left after takeoff.

Before taking off, Mr. Pann called his wife and told her he was heading for the Island and would be back in a few minutes.

But when Mr. Fullerton arrived at the airport at 8:30 p.m., he immediately knew something was wrong. The building was unlocked.

“I basically find out the plane is gone, the phone is ringing, it’s his wife, ‘Where’s Joe? He should be back by now,’” recalled Mr. Fullerton. “I thought, ‘This is not good at all.’”

He called for search assistance from the Coast Guard.

St. Ignace residents got the first inkling something was wrong when the U.S. Coast Guard helicopter could be heard above the city throughout the night, beginning about 11 p.m.

Multiple search and rescue teams were mobilized.

The search involved the coordination of multiple search and rescue teams. Michigan State Police, led by Sgt. Mark Tamlyn from the St. Ignace post, were responsible for securing the scene before turning it over to investigators Monday.

The Air Force Rescue Coordination Center coordinated the land search efforts and the 9th Coast Guard District coordinated the water search. A 47-foot motor lifeboat from Coast Guard Station St. Ignace began the water search and later was joined by the 225-foot Coast Guard cutter Hollyhock. By air from Coast Guard Air Station Traverse City, a MH- 65C Dolphin rescue helicopter was dispatched and from Air Station Cape Cod, Massachusetts, a HU-25 Guardian rescue airplane searched the Straits area. The U.S. Border Patrol and the Mackinac County Sheriff’s Office brought in all-terrain vehicles.

Cellular telephone providers worked on tracking phone signals.

A ground search on the north side of Mackinac Island began Saturday night and did not stop until Sunday morning. It included firefighters, police, and members of the Department of Public Works, state park, and EMS.

“We searched the back side of the Island on foot and with vehicles,” said Mackinac Island Police Chief Jim Marks. “We knew if it was out there, we would have found it. We searched everyplace, even the swamps.”

The search ended about 10 minutes before the plane was discovered in St. Ignace about noon.

“When we broke the search,” said Chief Marks, “we were totally convinced that the plane was not on our Island.”

On the mainland, local pilot Ken Smith and observer Joe Fullerton, Mr. Fullerton’s son, found the wreckage in an air search. While the Coast Guard was searching Mackinac Island, Mr. Fullerton sent up a plane to search an area north of the airport, acting on a tip that people there had heard a noise Saturday night.

At the crash scene Sunday, St. Ignace firefighters used chainsaws to cut a trail into the woods to get to the wreckage about 75 yards from Mackinac Trail. Other first responders handled traffic control as word spread locally of the crash site, and traffic on the road increased.

On Mackinac Island, the annual Christmas bazaar was underway when word came that the wreckage of the plane had been discovered. Fr. Jim Williams of Ste. Anne’s Church announced the finding of the wreckage and loss of the two men about 2 p.m. He asked for a moment of silence and then offered a prayer for the men and their families.

“There was a lot of work all night by a lot of people,” said Mr. Fullerton. “People worked really hard trying to find this plane. It was a big search. Everybody was hoping for the best, but it didn’t work out.”

Obituaries for Mr. Pann and Mr. Phillips are published in this issue of Town Crier.

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