Authorities search for missing airplane carrying 2 men, 2 reporters from Montana newspaper

Monday, June 28, 2010

Plane missing with 2 Montana reporters on board

KALISPELL, Mont. — Authorities were searching Monday for a single-engine airplane carrying four people, including two Montana newspaper reporters, that took off on a sightseeing tour the day before and did not return.

The 1968 Piper airplane departed from Kalispell City Airport on Sunday afternoon with Sonny Kless, the Missoula man who rented the plane, and his passengers: two reporters for the Daily Inter Lake newspaper of Kalispell — Melissa Weaver and Erika Hoefer — and a man identified by newspaper, citing the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office, as Brian Williams of Missoula.

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.”

Because of information received from radar and cell phone tracking, the search had shifted Monday evening to the National Bison Range south of Flathead Lake near Moiese, said Debbie Alke, administrator for Aeronautics Division of the state Department of Transportation.

At dusk on Monday, about a dozen searchers gathered on the rolling green hills of the 18,500-acre bison range some 80 miles south of Kalispell. A plane circled overhead as authorities established a command center for the search expected to last through the night.

Federal Aviation Administration radar data showed the missing plane traveled 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 told the Daily Inter Lake.

Witnesses in the area reportedly observed a low-flying blue-and-white plane around 4 or 4:30 p.m. Sunday, the Daily Inter Lake reported.

Alke said searchers would expand outward from that last known location, but were hindered by a lack of a flight plan.

The bison range is in Sanders County. Undersheriff Rube Wrightsman said the search said county search and rescue authorities have been alerted but he had no further information.

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,” Sheriff Mike Meehan said.

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.

Kless rented the plane from Northstar Aeronautics, which is located at the Missoula International Airport, the Missoulian newspaper reported.

Before the plane took off Sunday afternoon, Kless told Northstar the plane would arrive back in Missoula after its scheduled 4 p.m. return, Jeff Woodruff, Northstar general manager, told the newspaper.

Kless “wasn’t sure when” he would return or how late he would be, Woodruff said.

He told the Missoula newspaper he first became aware the plane was missing Monday morning. He said Kless had been flying that particular single-engine Piper Arrow for about a year.

The tail number on the airplane was registered to Joel Woodruff of Stevensville. A message left at a number listed for him was not immediately returned Monday evening.

The Montana Civil Air Patrol joined the search along with a U.S. Customs and Border Protection 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 also were analyzing radar data from Salt Lake City and cell-phone tower information.

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.

Associated Press reporter Matt Volz contributed to this report from Helena, Mont.

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