KALISPELL – Authorities were searching parts of Lake and Sanders counties Monday for a single-engine airplane carrying four people, including two Montana newspaper reporters, that took off the day before and did not return.
The 1968 Piper Arrow departed from Kalispell City Airport on Sunday afternoon with Sonny Kless, the Missoula man who rented the plane, another Missoula man and two reporters for the Daily Inter Lake newspaper of Kalispell — Melissa Weaver and Erika Hoefer.
Carey Cooley, public information officer for the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, said the last known transmissions from the plane were over the National Bison Range and Moiese area. The last known GPS coordinate was about 300 feet above the ground in this area, Cooley said.
Air searches by various entities began Monday, while ground searches began once the last known GPS coordinates could provide a central location. Ground search crews include teams from Lake County Sheriff’s Office, Lake County Search and Rescue, Sanders County Sheriff’s Office, Sanders County Search and Rescue and representatives from Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Search crews had not pinpointed the entire scope of the search by 11 p.m. Monday night, but Cooley said short- and long-term plans were in the works.
“It’s a pretty wide area,” Cooley said.
Authorities released a description of the plane as a blue and white 1968 piper arrow; a single engine airplane with a low wing.
“We will continue the search through the night,” Cooley said.
Weaver’s roommate contacted the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office and other agencies on Monday morning when Weaver had not returned or left a message.
Rick Weaver, publisher of the Daily Inter Lake, said the reporters were going on a sightseeing trip to Glacier National Park about 30 miles northeast of Kalispell.
“They were on their day off and just having fun,” said Weaver, who is not related to Melissa Weaver. “We’re just hoping for the absolute best. We hope that they’re found, and everybody’s OK.”
Sheriff Mike Meehan told the newspaper that investigators believe the group was in the area of the park, but that was not confirmed.
Hoefer last updated her Facebook page about 10 minutes after taking off with a message reading, “We’re flying to the park and we’re later going to a barbecue,” Meehan said.
Glacier National Park spokeswoman Amy Vanderbilt said there was no indication that the plane entered the park and that park officials were standing by to assist with the search.
Kless last made radio contact with the tower at Glacier Park International Airport 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, and a sheriff’s detective was pursuing a subpoena to access that message from a server.
A state airplane checked wilderness airstrips after noon, Sgt. Ernie Freebury told the Daily Inter Lake. The Montana Civil Air Patrol joined the search along with a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol helicopter.
The search area is very large and while the plane has a transponder on board, it’s an old one, Meehan said. “You would have to fly almost directly over it to make contact, and that’s a hindrance.”
Freebury said officials were analyzing radar data from Salt Lake City and cell-phone tower information and hoped to narrow the search area.
Melissa Weaver, 23, is a police and courts reporter for the Daily Inter Lake. Her parents live in Billings and were headed to Kalispell, Rick Weaver said.
Hoefer, 27, 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.
The fourth person on board has not been identified.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.