John G. ‘Sean’ Rafter Admits He Should Have Landed His AirMed Helicopter Before It Ran Out Of Fuel And Crashed In Casco Bay, Killing Three.

By Jason Wolfe
Portland Press Herald
January 30, 1996

The pilot of a rescue helicopter that crashed into Casco Bay more than two years ago admitted Monday that his mistakes caused the deaths of a burn victim and two crew members on board.

John G. “Sean” Rafter’s public apology and acceptance of responsibility in court were required as part of a settlement he reached in a negligence suit filed by the family of the burn patient, Douglas Fernald. The settlement was announced by Justice G. Arthur Brennan as jury selection was about to begin for the civil trial in Cumberland County Superior Court. Details of the financial part of the settlement were not disclosed.

Fernald, 70, died along with a paramedic and a nurse when the helicopter went down in bad weather near Portland Harbor on Nov. 19, 1993. Rafter was the sole survivor. Rafter said Monday he never should have taken the flight under the weather conditions at the time and should have ended the flight as soon as conditions worsened. “I overestimated what I thought I could do, and I did not exercise the degree of care and judgment required,” Rafter said in a prepared statement in court. “I am truly sorry and express my deepest sympathy to the families.”

Wayne Fernald, Fernald’s son, said Monday he shook Rafter’s hand and was satisfied that his apology was sincere. “He meant what he said when he apologized. I accepted the apology,” Fernald said outside the courthouse. Fernald, of Westford, Mass., said he also satisfied the resolution of the lawsuit achieved the family’s other aim of fostering improved safety in emergency transportation.

Rafter’s public statement included four recommendations to help prevent future tragedies. The recommendations included adding advanced equipment to deal with inclement weather and taking the profit motive away from the air ambulance providers by turning them over to hospitals or other non-profit organizations. “My father died; the courts are not going to ever bring him back,” Wayne Fernald said. “So I wanted something changed in a positive way to benefit the state of Maine.” The crash occurred as Rafter was transporting the burn patient from Ellsworth to Portland.

The National Transportation Safety Board found that Rafter was responsible for the accident because he chose to continue on the flight when the weather turned bad. The NTSB report noted the Rafter and the helicopter were rated for visual flying conditions, but the weather deteriorated to the point that instruments were required. The helicopter had no such instruments.

The NTSB also said Rafter failed to make sure there was enough fuel on board to fly to Ellsworth, where he picked up Fernald, and return to Portland. The craft ran out of fuel and crashed into the bay about seven miles east of Portland International Jetport.

The Federal Aviation Administration later accused Rafter of 11 violations and stripped its licenses from Rafter and his air-ambulance company, Airmed Skycare. “I was the pilot. I am responsible. I’ve never denied that,” Rafter said Monday, outside the courtroom. “I’m responsible for the outcome of that aircraft. I’ve got to stand up and take responsibility for it.”

Besides Douglas Fernald, the other victims were Matthew Jeton, 25, a nurse, and Don MacIntyre, 48, a paramedic. Rafter crawled out of the cockpit after the helicopter overturned and began sinking. He survived by grabbing a pontoon in the frigid waters and floating to a nearby island.
The accident left a void in round-the-clock air-ambulance service in Maine until a month ago. Maine Aviation Corp. of Portland is teaming with Massachusetts-based JetMed Inc. to station a fixed-wing, all-weather airplane at the Portland airport.

The new arrangement ensures the presence 24 hours a day of an emergency aircraft and on-call crew. But Maine still needs emergency helicopter service for remote rescues and short hops between hospitals, officials say.