Moose Lake Star Gazette - Serving Carlton and Pine Counties Since 1895

By Lois E. Johnson
Moose Lake Star-Gazette 

Tragic loss in plane crash


Courtesy MN Flyer

Dr. Stillwell from an interview in 2016.

Dr. Thomas Stillwell, 65, Plymouth, died in a plane crash near the Moose Lake-Carlton County Airport on Wednesday, May 8, as he was about to return to the Crystal Airport that afternoon in a heavy snowstorm. He was a urology specialist and had been seeing patients at Mercy Hospital that day, as he had twice a month for 16 years.

Moose Lake Fire and Rescue were paged out at 10 pm on Wednesday, May 8, during a heavy snowstorm to search for a missing plane.

In a report from the Carlton County Sheriff's Office, the call came in from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to the Carlton County and Pine County Sheriff's Offices at 8 pm that the plane had not landed at the Crystal Airport at the scheduled time of 5:15 pm. Deputies checked the Cloquet, Moose Lake and Hinckley airports but were unable to locate the plane.

According to the report, the plane was not seen on Duluth or Minneapolis Airport Tower radar.

An air search of the area was not possible due to the weather conditions.

According to information from Captain Steve Trenhaile of the Moose Lake Fire Department, a command post was set up at the Moose Lake Emergency Response Center with the Carlton County Sheriff's Office and the Moose Lake Fire Department in command.

"We started searching in all directions for possible wreckage, using ATVs, in the area north of Moose Lake including the Soo Pits," Trenhaile reported in an email. "Trucks were used to search in other directions. The weather conditions were extremely poor with driving snow and poor visibility."

More help was called.

Trenhaile stated, "St. Louis County Rescue was requested and, as we arrived back at the hall, more detailed search teams were set up. It was decided that, with new information about the plane, direction of travel and current extreme weather, that it was within a few miles of the airport.

"We searched trails and woods south and west of the river near the airport, including the Soo Line and Munger trail area on foot, with ATVs and Marshmaster machines. Visibility was very poor.

"The search was temporarily suspended at 4:30 am to allow the teams to rehab from the poor weather conditions. At first light, the Moose Lake Fire Department teams started searching again. The plane was discovered partially submerged in the Moose Horn River near shore just northwest of the airport. We advised the command post, and our Zodiac (rubber tube boat) was dispatched with a rescue team to the scene. They were able to confirm that the victim still in the plane was deceased. St. Louis County, with their specialized track vehicles and a team wearing cold water suits, responded as well in their Zodiac boats."

Agencies involved were the Carlton County and Pine County Sheriff's Offices, Moose Lake Police Department, Minnesota State Patrol, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Moose Lake Fire Department and St. Louis County Rescue. The Willow River and Sturgeon Lake Fire Departments were also initially involved in searching areas farther south until the search area was refined, Trenhaile reported.

The victim was identified as Dr. Thomas Stillwell. He was leaving to fly back to the Crystal Airport at approximately 4 pm, according to the flight plan.

Larry Peterson of the Lake Air Flying Club of Moose Lake reported that he had received notification that the plane had left the airport at 4:38 pm.

The FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board are conducting an investigation of the crash.

Stillwell trained at Crystal Shamrock, where he earned his pilot's license, after which he started flying VFR to Mora. He then pursued his instrument rating. As he picked up ratings, he also engaged in more hospital outreach programs including Sandstone, Moose Lake, Grantsburg and Onamia.

In an interview from 2016 for the Minnesota Flyer magazine, Dr. Stillwell said, "I love to fly. I think being a pilot is part of your genetics. It's somewhere deep in you that, once it gets tapped, it's kind of hard to resist. You must feed this need. If you don't, you are not happy."

Stillwell served in the Navy as a medic during Desert Storm.

As a veteran, Stillwell had a heart for other veterans and was very active in the veteran community. He is remembered for organizing an annual flight experience for World War II veterans. He rounded up other pilots to volunteer and took more than a hundred veterans to areas all over Minnesota.

"He wanted to make sure that they had a good day and thank them for their service," said Tim Franklin, publisher of the Minnesota Flyer and Moose Lake Star Gazette, as well as three other newspapers.

Franklin remembers Stillwell as being a humble man.

"He would never want to take credit for it," he said. "He would always give credit to others."

Dr. Stillwell's service in Moose Lake will be missed at Mercy Hospital.

"Dr. Stillwell was a compassionate and skilled physician and he will be deeply missed," said Mike Youso, Mercy CEO. "Dr. Stillwell began traveling to Mercy to provide exceptional care to our patients in September 2002. His passing impacts our whole community. Our condolences are extended to his family, his colleagues at Minnesota Urology, our surgery and specialty clinic staff who worked so closely with him, and the patients in his care."

Stillwell is survived by his wife, Virginia, and four grown children.


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