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Questions linger in plane crash investigation

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MOEISE — The National Transportation Safety Bureau began investigations last Thursday into the cause of a June 27 plane crash that claimed the lives of four young Montanans: Melissa Weaver and Erika Hoefer of Kalispell, and two Missoula men, pilot Sonny Kless and Brian Williams.

After a massive three-day air, ground and water search headquartered at the National Bison Range, a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol helicopter finally located the wrecked single-engine plane Wednesday afternoon in a remote, rugged area a few miles south of the Flathead River and west of Dixon near Revais Creek. The crash site was within a huge search area mapped out after the small plane’s last known GPS coordinates placed it at 300 feet above ground just west of the Bison Range in Moeise. During the three-day search, planes had flown over the area several times already without a glimpse of the crash, Lake County Sheriff’s office spokeswoman Carey Cooley said.

“You pretty much had to be right over (the wreckage),” Cooley said. “It was very difficult to spot.”

Cooley described the crash site as several miles from the nearest road in “very dense, thick” forest with lots of downed timber and brush. The plane itself was on somewhat flat ground but surrounded by “very mountainous” terrain. The trees were too thick for the first helicopter to lower a basket to the wreckage, so a larger Malmstrom Air Force Base helicopter returned to the site and, using a hoist, inserted Sanders County Undersheriff Rube Wrightsman and an Air Force medic. Wrightsman confirmed there were no survivors and described the plane’s condition as “not fully intact, but not scattered either,” according to Cooley.

Wednesday night, search and rescue teams staged on a logging road a few miles from the crash site in preparation for what would be a grueling, all-day effort to recover the four bodies on Thursday. About 45 hikers — a mountain rescue team from Flathead County, search and rescue teams from Lake and Sanders Counties and a saw team from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ Division of Fire — struck out on foot early Thursday morning, Cooley said, but it was 6 p.m. when searchers finally reached the downed airplane. The saw team cleared foliage around the aircraft enough to remove the bodies via a helicopter net, and had all four out by 8 p.m. Searchers were then able to return to base camp on a two-mile trail cleared by the saw team.

“(The recovery effort) was a very difficult and arduous task,” Cooley said. “Those (search and rescue) guys deserve a lot of pats on the back.”

Air safety investigator Van McKenny, who’s based out of the NTSB’s western Pacific regional office in Los Angeles, arrived on site around midnight Thursday, Cooley said. McKenny, along with a Federal Aviation Administration official and other aircraft engineers, will work to determine the probable cause of the crash, said Debra Eckrote, NTSB’s deputy regional chief. McKenny will first document the wreckage at the crash site before removing the 1968 Piper Arrow airplane, which Eckrote said will probably happen within a few days of beginning the investigation. 

But the rest of the investigation could take months.

“We try to get the (investigation) done within 270 days of the accident,” Eckrote said. 

Cooley said the multi-agency search involved around 100 people from Lake, Sanders and Flathead County search and rescue teams and Lake and Sanders Counties’ Sheriff’s Offices, as well as tribal personnel and National Bison Range employees.

“Everyone involved came together and put in one of the best efforts I’ve ever seen,” Cooley said. “(The National Bison Range staff) were so, so helpful.”

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