June 30, 2010 in Region

Plane missing in Montana spotted from air

Associated Press
 

HELENA, Mont. — Searchers today spotted what they believe to be the wreckage of a plane carrying four people who never returned from an afternoon sightseeing trip in northwestern Montana, a Lake County sheriff’s spokeswoman said. There was no immediate word on survivors.

A pilot with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection spotted the crash site from the air Wednesday afternoon in rough terrain just inside the Sanders County line, not far from the single-engine plane’s last known location, spokeswoman Carey Cooley said.

The wrecked plane matches the description of the 1968 Piper Arrow missing since Sunday, but authorities have not been able to read the tail number, Cooley said.

A team from Malmstrom Air Force Base was taking authorities to the crash site and planned to lower searchers to the ground to confirm it is the missing plane and to check for survivors, she said.

Pilot Sonny Kless, friend Brian Williams and two newspaper reporters from the Daily Inter Lake of Kalispell, Melissa Weaver and Erika Hoefer, took off in the rented plane on a sightseeing trip Sunday afternoon.

They departed from Kalispell, flew through Glacier National Park and went south across Flathead Lake to their last known location west of the National Bison Range, according to radar data.

Federal Aviation Administration data put the plane’s altitude at 300 feet before it disappeared. Witnesses who saw the blue-and-white plane told searchers they believe it was flying even lower, Cooley said.

The FAA’s minimum allowable altitude is 500 feet.

Kless’ mother, Janelle Gentry of Kalispell, said her son, 25, obtained his pilot’s license about a year ago and that he has flown the Glacier National Park-Flathead Lake-Flathead River loop several times.

Thirty of Kless’ 100 hours of total flight time was in that Piper Arrow, said Joel Woodruff, general manager of Northstar Jet Inc. in Missoula and owner of the plane.

Weaver, 23, is from Billings, and Hoefer, 27, is from Beloit, Wis. Both began work at the end of last year.

Kless, 25, is a recent graduate from the University of Montana with a degree in environmental studies and communications.

Williams attends law school at the University of Montana.

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