Minnesota doctor dies in plane crash after traveling to see patients

Thomas Stillwell and his wife, Virginia, in Alaska in 2016.
Thomas Stillwell and his wife, Virginia, in Alaska in 2016.
Courtesy of Stillwell family

Updated May 10, 7:43 a.m. | Posted May 9, 7:06 a.m.

The pilot of a small plane that crashed shortly after takeoff in Moose Lake on Wednesday was a Navy veteran, a former combat surgeon and a urologist who incorporated his lifelong love of flying into his medical work.

Thomas Stillwell of Plymouth, 65, was killed when the Mooney M20J four-seat aircraft he was flying crashed into the Moose Horn River as he was heading back to the Twin Cities. He was a physician at Minnesota Urology at the time of his death.

"The part of his practice he loved the most was traveling to clinics in outstate Minnesota and practicing urology in rural communities, and bringing his healing and his talents to folks who might otherwise not have access to such specialized care," said his daughter Kate Stillwell, who lives in California. He is also survived by his wife, Virginia, three other adult children and six grandchildren.

Stillwell is originally from Kohler, Wis., but served for years in the Navy, including service on the Iraq-Kuwait border during the first Gulf War, where he was a surgeon in a field hospital.

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After leaving the service, he moved to Minnesota with his family in 1991 to work in a private practice, and start flight training.

Stillwell had been working in Moose Lake and filed a flight plan for his return trip to Crystal on Wednesday. The plane he flew belonged to Club Cherokee, a flying club at the airport. Club officials described him as a "long-standing and highly respected member."

Thomas Stillwell.
Thomas Stillwell was an active pilot, Navy vet and doctor who flew around the region to see and treat patients.
Courtesy of Stillwell family

When Stillwell failed to return home, the Federal Aviation Administration alerted local authorities, and searchers with the Carlton County Sheriff's Office located the plane in the river near the Moose Lake airport Thursday morning.

The FAA and the NTSB are investigating the crash and haven't offered any initial indication of what happened. A winter storm was moving through the region at the time.

Stillwell's daughter, Kate, said he was a seasoned and meticulous pilot, and had logged more than 2,000 hours of flight time. She said he made a practice of flying to clinics in Moose Lake, Mora, Onamia and Grantsburg, Wis., to see patients and perform surgery. She said he was flying as much as 12 days a month to care for his patients, many of them fellow veterans, which she said he particularly appreciated.

He also had a tradition of arranging get-togethers for veterans, particularly from World War II, from around the state to share their experiences.

"He would organize pilots to pick up veterans and fly them to a destination to have a reunion, to get to know each other and talk about the experiences they had and the services they provided. And to talk about airplanes," she said.

Funeral arrangements are pending.