BY KATY MOELLER Hat tip: Monica McFadden
A 61-year-old grandma in Vancouver, B.C., studied more than 10,500 images of the densely forested area near Johnson Creek Airport in the Central Idaho mountains over the past week, hoping to find a clue on the whereabouts of a small plane that went missing Dec. 1.
On Thursday, she flagged a group of about 2,300 fellow online searchers on the “TOMNOD: Smith Plane Search” page about an abnormality she found.
Pineshi Gustin and other volunteers used their home, work and laptop computers to hunt for Dale Smith’s white, single-engine Beech Bonanza, which went missing after the pilot reported icing and engine failure.
“I don’t specifically look for an image of plane. I’ve learned over time that metal and glass reflect back to the camera and the satellite image, and that’s what I’m looking for,” said Gustin, who has made a hobby of studying satellite and video images since record-setting aviator Steve Fossett went missing in the Nevada desert in 2007.
The eagle-eyed Canadian woman, who sometimes uses a magnifying glass, helped bring a search team on the ground to within two-tenths of a mile of the wreckage, according to the team’s search report. The bright reflection Gustin saw wasn’t the plane — possibly ice in the trees — but searchers came across the plane as they continued along the ridge.
The search team found the plane in deep snow on Antimony Ridge — about 1.7 miles from the north end of Johnson Creek’s airstrip — according to Boise area pilots Jim Hudson and Kevin Bentley, who captured the images Gustin flagged during a flight Monday.
Bentley had brought a GoPro camera, often used in extreme action video photography, for the flight. But he turned to his Android cellphone after a GoPro malfunction. He held the cellphone up against the window of the plane, later processing the images to connect them with GPS coordinates.
“To be able to find it, especially through images, is a miracle and a testimony of people’s faith and determination,” said Blake Adams, a friend of Dale Smith’s in San Jose who coordinated volunteers on the Facebook page.
None of the five people aboard Smith’s single-engine Beech Bonanza survived the crash, according to the Valley County Sheriff’s Office. Aboard the plane were Smith, 51, a San Jose software company executive; his daughter Amber and her fiance, Jonathan Norton, both students at BYU-Idaho in Rexburg; and Smith’s son and daughter-in-law, Daniel and Sheree Smith of Glasgow, Mont., where they worked digitizing documents.
The plane apparently burned after crashing, Dale Smith’s wife, Janis, told a San Jose television station Friday.
“There’s this huge feeling of relief that they’re found, but sadness that they really are gone,” Janis Smith told the NBC affiliate. “Up until now, it was always they’re hanging out in a hot springs somewhere, or a cabin somewhere. And now we know that is not the case. But on the other hand, they went quickly. They didn’t suffer with cold and hunger and thirst.”
The recovery effort Saturday was thwarted by poor weather. The Valley County Sheriff’s Office plans a meeting to determine options for the recovery.
“We were thinking that with the weather, we probably wouldn’t find it until spring,” Valley County Sheriff Patti Bolen told the Associated Press. “There was a lot of effort put in by the family and friends who decided that they were going to go out there and find it, or at least make a good attempt.”
The plane is buried in about 3 feet of snow, and more was falling Saturday.
The official search for the plane ended Dec. 12. That’s when restrictions on private pilots were lifted, and their intensive efforts began.
Hudson and Bentley, along with fellow Boise pilot Bill McGlynn, marveled Saturday about the effort made by people from all walks of life, near and far. All three flew the area more than once to get fresh images; they said Boise air traffic controller and pilot Andy Marosvari did five flights over the area.
Getting the video was the easy part.
“Next thing you know, you’re spending hours and hours — you keep looking at these images,” McGlynn said.
They pointed to the efforts of others, including Jim Higgins of Chico, Calif., who transported a snowcat to Yellow Pine to aid a private ground search team making one last push to find the plane this week.
Dellon Smith, brother of the pilot of the plane, was part of the search team. Earlier this week, he said a radar ghost point, or ping — a point beyond the plane’s last confirmed location — had helped them narrow the search to about a mile east of the Johnson Creek Airport.
Though the plane has now been located, many questions remain, including why Smith flew the plane into an area in such poor weather.
Smith, who obtained his pilot’s license in 2005, flew “angel missions,” transporting aid to hurricane victims and others in need, Dellon Smith said.
McGlynn said there were warnings about ice, clouds and wind in the Central Idaho mountains Dec. 1. When the plane began to ice up, Smith — just halfway into the flight from Baker City, Ore., to Butte, Mont. — tried to divert to Salmon, the pilots said.
Ice can quickly debilitate a plane. Not only does it weigh down the plane with hundreds of extra pounds, affecting lift, but it can also impact engine function.
“It builds really fast. In 2 minutes, ice can be fatal,” said McGlynn, a retired Hewlett-Packard vice president and longtime backcountry pilot. “He was in for 5 minutes.”