The search for a missing plane entered its third day Wednesday as authorities assured the families and friends of the four people on board that they’re “not quitting.”
Searchers have unsuccessfully combed the rough terrain of northwestern Montana for the 1968 Piper Arrow single-engine plane rented Sunday afternoon by pilot Sonny Kless, friend Brian Williams and two newspaper reporters from the Daily Inter Lake of Kalispell: Melissa Weaver and Erika Hoefer.
The four took off from Kalispell on a sightseeing trip through Glacier National Park and went south across Flathead Lake to their last known location west of the National Bison Range. The ground search was concentrated along the Flathead River between Dixon and where the river meets the Clark Fork River.
“We’re not quitting,” Lake County Sheriff Lucky Larson said Tuesday night at the bison range’s visitor center, some 80 miles south of Kalispell. “We want to find them.”
Lake County sheriff’s spokeswoman Carey Cooley said Wednesday that new strategies were being put into place that searchers hope will better pinpoint where the plane might have gone down.
On Tuesday, investigators painstakingly plotted the course of the plane by combining eye witness accounts with intermittent radar data. Airplanes on Wednesday will try to recreate the route while the eye witnesses stand on the ground verifying that the path is correct, Cooley said.
A boat equipped with advanced sonar was to comb a five-mile stretch of the Flathead River west the bison range that authorities have zeroed in as the most likely area to find the plane. At the same time, searchers have not ruled out a larger area and were continuing a broader airplane search.
Cooley said the multi-agency effort, which includes several area counties along with state and federal authorities, will continue.
“All the players are in place still,” she said.
Federal Aviation Administration radar data put the plane’s altitude at 300 feet before it disappeared. Witnesses who saw the blue-and-white plane told searchers they believe it was flying even lower, Cooley said.
The FAA’s minimum allowable altitude is 500 feet.
Kless’ mother, Janelle Gentry of Kalispell, said her son obtained his pilot’s license about a year ago and that he has flown the Glacier National Park-Flathead Lake-Flathead River loop several times.
Thirty of Kless’ 100 hours of total flight time was in that Piper Arrow, said Joel Woodruff, general manager of Northstar Jet Inc. in Missoula and owner of the plane.
Weaver, 23, is from Billings, and Hoefer, 27, is from Beloit, Wis. Both began work at the end of last year.
Kless, 25, is a recent graduate from the University of Montana with a degree in environmental studies and communications. Williams attends law school at the University of Montana.
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