Saving lives from the air in all types of weather

0

Sooner or later, most career game wardens place themselves in harm’s way in the line of duty. The same can be said for game warden pilots who often are called upon to assist, from the air, in coordinated ground searches for missing persons.

More often than not, the weather is nasty, and warden pilots find themselves up there under the “scud” in what flyers sometimes call “high pucker” conditions.

On December 4, game warden pilot Dan Dufault found himself in those conditions. It was windy and snowing that morning when the parents of Dylan Butler, 11, and Madison Richardson, 3, reported the kids missing. The missing youngsters were eventually spotted by Dufault from the air. Amid a swirling snow squall, the kids were seen floating down the Kennebec River five hours after they were reported missing. They were eventually rescued and hospitalized with hypothermia.

Dufault didn’t have to fly. Conditions were almost impossible, with poor visibility and low cloud cover. In cases like this, it is the warden pilot’s call. He knows the risks, and nobody, including his bosses, ever second guesses a warden pilot’s decision to stay on the ground in weather that can kill the most skilled bush flyer.

In all probablity, Dufault’s willingness to take the calculated risk and search for the kids, while flying his Cessna under the scud at treetop level, is the reason they are alive today. With falling temperatures, time was of the essence.

Without question, in the eyes of these kids and their parents, Dan Dufault is a very special guy. They will not soon forget him and his courage and airmanship. Dufault is one of a long line of Maine game warden pilots who have served the state’s residents with courage, dedication and uncommon airmanship.

Two pilots died in the line of duty. In 1956, warden pilot George Townsend was killed in a plane crash at Maranacook Lake. Then in 1972 at the same lake, Dick Varney drowned when his helicopter crashed into the lake. Former chief warden pilot Jack McPhee was killed last year when his personal Super Cub crashed up north.

Maine’s first game warden pilot was Bill Turgeon. In 1937, Turgeon flew an airplane belonging to the fish and wildlife commissioner. The airplane was a Gull-Wing Stinson.

The Maine warden service has had roughly 20 game warden pilots for the past 70 years.

During my stint at MDIF&W, I flew with a couple of warden pilots. Spending time with Dana Toothaker, who was chief warden pilot for a number of years, I picked up stories. Toothaker chalked up 19,000 hours during his 26 years in the air. He also flew choppers in combat in Vietnam and Desert Storm. Toothaker, 64, who now operates a landscaping business in Phillips, winters with his wife in Punta Gorda, Fla., where his fishes away the hours.

One winter, Malcom “Mac” Maheu, who was a bomber pilot in WWII, crashed his warden plane through the ice at a remote lake where there was a warden cabin. Maheu got himself out of the plane and the icy water. Shivering with hypothermia, he could find no wood or kindling in the cabin. The story has it that Maheu went back to his plane, got under the icy water and retrieved his ax from the cockpit so he could start a warming fire in the cabin. The pilot was eventually rescued.

From that day, no warden cabins will ever be left by any occupants without leaving a prepared fire in the stove ready to be lit.

As far as we know, nobody is keeping track of just how many lives have been saved as a direct or indirect effort of the pilots. My guess is that the figure is substantial.

Modern airplanes are expensive to buy and expensive to keep in the air. When there are are budget shortfalls in Augusta, the number crunchers begin looking at possible cutbacks in warden airplanes and pilots.

Maybe this can’t be helped. But if you were the parent of a missing child, the wife of a lost hunter, or the son of an elderly person who walked off into the woods, there would be comfort in knowing that the warden service rescue unit is using every tool at its disposal – including pilots.

Like Dan Dufault and those skilled bush flyers before him, flying game wardens are a special breed.

V. Paul Reynolds is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WCME-FM 96.7) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is paul@sportingjournal.com.

Advertisement