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Bodies Recovered From Plane Crash Site Near Moiese

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Teams recovered the bodies of two Missoula men and two Kalispell newspaper reporters from the site of a small plane crash Thursday as federal investigators began to look at piecing together what happened.

The recovery teams had a difficult time making progress through dense forest to the site on a remote, rugged hillside near the National Bison Range, Lake County Sheriff’s spokeswoman Carey Cooley said.

Accompanying them was a saw team from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ fire division. The crew cleared enough trees and underbrush in the area to allow a helicopter to hoist the bodies at about 8 p.m., Cooley said. The remains have been sent to the state crime lab in Missoula.

Authorities found the wreckage Wednesday about 80 miles south of Kalispell after a 2½-day ground and air search for the four friends who never returned from a sightseeing trip Sunday.

An official with the Sanders County sheriff’s office rappelled from a helicopter to confirm the aircraft was the missing 1968 Piper Arrow. Four bodies were inside.

The terrain made recovering the bodies by helicopter impossible without the hoist becoming snagged in the trees, authorities determined. On Thursday, a recovery crew from the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office specializing in mountain rescues set out for the site from about a mile above the wreckage. A second team approached from below about two miles away, using the sawyers to clear the dense brush and timber in their path, Cooley said.

“There was a lot of downed timber and brush,” she said. “It was a very arduous hike in for these folks.”

About 45 people took part in the recovery effort, including officials from the Sanders and Lake county sheriff’s offices along with the Flathead, and Salish and Kootenai teams.

The plane took off Sunday from Kalispell, flew through Glacier National Park airspace, then headed south across Flathead Lake. Radar data last tracked them close to where the wreckage was found a couple of miles north of the Flathead River.

On board were pilot Sonny Kless, 25, Brian Williams, 28, and reporters Erika Hoefer, 27, and Melissa Weaver, 23. Kless recently graduated from the University of Montana, Williams was a law student there and the women were reporters for the Daily Inter Lake of Kalispell.

A National Transportation Safety Board investigator was headed to Montana on Thursday from Los Angeles to lead the probe, NTSB officials said. Van McKenny has investigated several other small plane crashes in recent years.

McKenny did not return a call for comment.

The NTSB investigation is likely to look into reports that Kless was flying too low when the plane was last seen.

The minimum altitude is 500 feet over open ground, according to Federal Aviation Authority spokesman Mike Fergus.

FAA radar data put the plane at 300 feet when it was last tracked, and several witnesses told authorities it may have been flying even lower than that.

Kless rented the plane Sunday from Northstar Jet., Inc., of Missoula, which is where he trained for his pilot’s license last year. He had 30 hours of flying experience in the Piper Arrow, according to Northstar general manager Joel Woodruff.

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