BURNHAM — A pilot remains in the hospital and a Unity College alumna is doing well after a helicopter carrying them crashed Wednesday night in Burnham during an aerial study of bears’ habitat, according to the study’s project leader.

The crash occurred at 6:39 p.m. in a heavily wooded area about a quarter-mile off Winnecook Road in Burnham, according to a Waldo County Sheriff’s Department news release. The pilot is a 58-year-old man from Bowdoinham, and his lone passenger was a woman, 27, from Unity College, according to the release.

The department declined to release the names of the injured Thursday.

George Matula, an associate professor at Unity College and the bear study’s project leader, identified the woman as Lisa Bates, 27, the study’s assistant project leader.

“I spent time with Lisa in the hospital,” Matula said Thursday, adding that she was released from MaineGeneral Medical Center’s Thayer Campus after treatment for her injuries. “She’s doing very well.”

Bates could not be reached for comment Thursday.

“I saw them flying not too far from the crash site at 4:15,” Matula said. “It was a small helicopter, so I don’t know if it could have stayed in the air for another two hours.” Matula met Bates on Winnecook road after the crash, but never saw the crash site, as medical personnel were still working on getting the pilot out of the woods safely.

Matula said he didn’t know the pilot, who was receiving medical treatment in Portland. He said the study outsources the flights to a nonprofit company called LightHawk, which uses volunteer pilots who donate flights to conserve and protect the enviornment and wildlife, according to its website.

LightHawk executive director Rudy Engholm said about 200 pilots participate in the nationwide program. He said Thursday that the crash was the first one he can recall in his 10 years with the organization.

He declined to identify the pilot, saying it wasn’t clear whether the man’s relatives had been notified.
“When something like this happens, we think of these pilots as part of our family,” he said. “It’s like having a family member injured. Our thoughts go out to the pilot and passenger and their families.”

Bates and the pilot were trying to find a particular bear that was wearing a very high-frequency, or VHF, collar, which helps triangulate a bear’s location, Matula said. He said Bates told him they were flying low when the helicopter started having problems.

“She told me they were right above tree level when something went wrong,” Matula said. “They settled into the trees before hitting the ground. Bates moved the pilot away from the wreckage because she smelled gasoline. She made him comfortable and used her GPS unit to get to the nearest road. She flagged down a motorist, who dialed 911.”

The sheriff’s office said the Burham and Clinton fire departments, Clinton Rescue and Unity Ambulance went to the crash site.

Matula said that when he heard about the accident, a couple of study participants started to figure out where they might have gone down. While en route to the crash site, Matula said, he then called a friend of Bates, who said  she was all right.

The study, which is in its first year, is intended mainly to give  undergraduate students a chance to do field research and produce information useful to Unity College. According to Matula, Bates was hired for the summer to help with bear tracking, and she’ll be contracted again in the winter to conduct research on bears’ dens. He said Bates was prepared for such emergencies.

“Most wildlife people get first aid or first response training,” Matula said. “Nothing is required, but Bates has spent a lot of time in the woods.”

Matula said the study doesn’t rely on flights often, but flying does provide an advantage in looking for dens.

Jasse Scardina — 861-9239
[email protected]