Grand Mananers were left reeling in the wake of another tragedy on Saturday, August 16, when a Piper PA31 on a medevac flight crashed short of the runway around 5 a.m. in fog. Pilot Klaus Sonnenberg, president of Atlantic Charters, was killed. Sonnenberg was the mainstay of the island's air service, which he established in 1978. Also killed was paramedic William "Billy" Mallock, who had almost 20 years of service. A second pilot and a registered nurse were injured and were taken to Saint John Regional Hospital. The nurse was released Sunday; the pilot remained in stable condition.
The plane was returning to Grand Manan after delivering a patient to the mainland hospital. Transportation Safety Board (TSB) officials began their investigation Sunday. Senior investigator Doug McEwen says the plane was "relatively intact," although "some individual components separated" on impact. Little information is available so far because the investigation has just begun. Michael Cunningham, Atlantic regional manager of air investigations, says investigators will continue to examine the plane, collect documentation and interview the survivors. "The indication so far is that this was a controlled‑flight‑into‑terrain incident," he says, noting that in darkness and fog it is "more challenging for pilots to acquire visual references." There was no mayday call, but Cunningham said there are three rubber skid marks on the road, which correspond with the landing gear. "The question is going to be, if that is where they touched down," how the plane ended up in the brush beside the runway.
"When I was first told, I found it hard to believe," said Mayor Dennis Greene. "Yesterday was a day of sadness and shock. I've been asked what [the loss of these two people] means for Grand Manan. It's immeasurable. Klaus has saved a lot of lives; it would be hard to imagine how many. He was always there when needed." Mallock was a Bible college graduate who spent a year preaching in Maine before becoming a carpenter, a volunteer firefighter, then a paramedic. Greene said, "Billy was a great paramedic and community person. He always believed in helping others," including visiting elderly residents in his off‑duty time. Greene is a little surprised by how far and how quickly word has spread, and he said he's received condolences from far afield. "It's nice to know people are thinking of us. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families. We hope for a speedy recovery" for the injured.
He added that he has been talking to Premier David Alward about the air ambulance service. "We don't want anything to happen [to the service] so that we don't have Atlantic Charters." There was a plan to have a plane from Quebec stationed on the island to fill in, but the local service was flying again Monday, having notified Ambulance New Brunswick (ANB) that they intended to resume service immediately.
ANB interim President Paul Ward posted a video message in which he said, "We are devastated by the incident and want to extend our deepest condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of our paramedic and the pilot who lost their lives." He assured New Brunswickers that air ambulance service will continue. Additional land ambulance crews were dispatched to the island.
Provincial Health Minister Hugh Flemming stated, "Life as a healthcare professional or a first responder is often demanding. These individuals selflessly put their personal needs aside for the good of their patients. However, never do we expect such a tragic circumstance to occur. On behalf of the provincial government, I wish to offer my sincerest and heartfelt condolences to the families and offer the registered nurse and the pilot best wishes for a complete recovery."
"This is completely devastating to the community," says MLA Rick Doucet, noting how those concerned "worked tirelessly" for "proper air ambulance service." Islanders have fought to keep Atlantic Charters as the primary medevac service, and many have stated they would "not be here today" if not for a flight with Sonnenberg. "He's probably one of the best pilots I've ever flown with," Doucet says, remembering a flight out of Pennfield when both of them revelled in the beauty and peacefulness above the fog. Sonnenberg helped to found the fishermen's association and was "a very strong advocate for fisheries. He cared for the people very much." He also recalled Mallock's pride in his daughter's achievement in becoming a paramedic, too.
Atlantic Charters had recently expanded their operations, with the purchase of some airport property from the village, a new aircraft and the construction of a new hangar. They were developing plans for a wider‑ranging Atlantic medevac service with medical personnel on staff, as well as more corporate charters. A company statement reads in part, "Our company enjoys an upstanding reputation for professional service and a close working relationship with the Grand Manan Hospital, Ambulance New Brunswick and island emergency responders. With the loss of Atlantic Charters company president and pilot... we are asking for your respect to give our community, company and family time to heal." The statement also expresses concern for the families of those injured and sympathy to the Mallock family.
TSB officials have stated that the investigation could take up to a year, but Cunningham says "because of the local interest" they are considering releasing interim 60‑day reports, which would outline the investigation's progress.