Search for missing airplane with 2 reporters on board focuses on Montana bison range

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Search for missing airplane focuses on bison range

MOIESE, Mont. — Authorities focused on an 18,500-acre bison range Tuesday in their search for a single-engine airplane carrying two Montana newspaper reporters who were on a sightseeing tour that disappeared two days ago.

Reporters Melissa Weaver and Erika Hoefer of the Daily Inter Lake of Kalispell were going on a sightseeing trip Sunday to Glacier National Park about 30 miles northeast of Kalispell, said Rick Weaver, the newspaper’s publisher.

But the search shifted late Monday to the rolling green hills of the National Bison Range 80 miles south of Kalispell after Federal Aviation Administration radar data showed that as the last location of the rented 1968 Piper airplane and its four occupants.

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.

Searchers were expected to work through the night in hopes of coming across the plane. If unsuccessful, authorities were expected to broaden the search to the Flathead River to the west after daybreak.

“It’s unfortunately a very large area,” said Lake County sheriff’s spokeswoman Carey Cooley.

Federal Aviation Administration radar data showed the 1968 Piper airplane and its four passengers 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.

Pilot Sonny 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, Northstar general manager Jeff Woodruff 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 fourth occupant was Brian Williams of Missoula, the Daily Inter Lake reported, citing the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office.

Melissa 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.

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 Sunday at 2:11 p.m., about 40 minutes after takeoff, reporting that the plane was east of Kalispell, traveling north.

Meehan said the plane has a transponder on board, and it’s an old one. “You would have to fly almost directly over it to make contact, and that’s a hindrance,” he said.

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

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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