MOIESE – A small aircraft may have been flying too low when last seen near the Flathead River in northwestern Montana with three passengers on board, including two newspaper reporters, authorities said Tuesday.
Federal Aviation Administration radar data put the plane’s altitude at 300 feet when it was last tracked west of the 18,500-acre National Bison Range. Several witnesses told searchers they believe it was flying even lower than that, said Lake County sheriff’s spokeswoman Carey Cooley.
“Five hundred feet is the absolute minimum, and that’s like in the middle of Kansas with nothing around,” said FAA spokesman Mike Fergus. “If he’s flying 300 feet above the ground, that’s illegal.”
The bison range is 80 miles south of Kalispell, and the Flathead River runs to the west, a large, braided waterway with steep hills nearby. Searchers launched sonar-equipped boats into the river and were searching the brushy islands that dot it. Nine planes and two helicopters were searching from the air, Cooley said.
The pilot of the rented 1968 blue-and-white Piper, Sonny Kless of Missoula, along with reporters Melissa Weaver and Erika Hoefer of the Daily Inter Lake and a Kless friend, Brian Williams, took off Sunday afternoon for a sightseeing trip.
FAA radar data showed the airplane traveled from Kalispell north along the Whitefish Range, entered Glacier National Park airspace, then headed south along the Swan Mountain Range, across Flathead Lake to the bison range, Flathead County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ernie Freebury said.
Several witnesses in the area reportedly saw a low-flying blue-and-white plane near the Flathead River, Cooley said. The witnesses said the plane did not appear to be experiencing mechanical problems.
“Everyone said the same thing — it was flying very, very low,” Cooley said.
Investigators believe they are searching the right area, based on the witnesses’ reports and data gleaned from radar and cell-phone towers, Cooley said.
Searchers planned to continue going until dark and then evaluate the situation, she said.
The families of those aboard the plane gathered at the Lake County sheriff’s command center in Moiese, awaiting word of their fate.
Kless’ mother, Janelle Gentry of Kalispell, said her son just graduated from the University of Montana and obtained his pilot’s license about a year ago. She said Kless, 25, has flown the Glacier National Park-Flathead Lake-Flathead River loop several times before and that he is a good pilot.
She said Kless and Williams are both avid outdoorsmen.
“If anyone can survive out there, it would be Sonny,” Gentry said. “We have many family members and the community praying, and we remain hopeful.”
Kless last made radio contact with the tower at Glacier Park International Airport Sunday at 2:11 p.m., about 40 minutes after takeoff, reporting that the plane was east of Kalispell, traveling north.
At least one text message was exchanged between Weaver and Hoefer’s cell phones about an hour after that last contact, which also helped track the plane’s last known location.
Weaver’s roommate contacted authorities when she didn’t return. Flathead County Sheriff Mike Meehan said Hoefer, 27, last updated her Facebook page about 10 minutes after taking off, writing: “We’re flying to the park and we’re later going to a barbecue.”
The tail number on the airplane was registered to Joel Woodruff of Stevensville. Woodruff is the general manager of Northstar Jet in Missoula. He did not immediately return a message Tuesday.
Weaver, 23, covers police and courts. Her parents live in Billings and were headed to Kalispell, Rick Weaver said. Hoefer is a business reporter for the newspaper who also writes for the Flathead Business Journal. She is from Beloit, Wis.
Both reporters began working for the newspaper at the end of last year.
Kless is a friend of Williams, a University of Montana law student, who is friends with the two reporters, said Wendy Martin, the pilot’s girlfriend. She said she had called several of Kless’ friends with backpacking experience to help in the search.
“All of his friends are real outdoorsy. They’ll find them,” Martin said.
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