Pilots work to find one of their ownThe search for a pilot missing over northeastern Minnesota has entered its second week with no sign of the Lakeville man or his white twin-engine Piper PA-31 Navajo.
By: Forum Newspapers, Lake County News Chronicle
The search for a pilot missing over northeastern Minnesota has entered its second week with no sign of the Lakeville man or his white twin-engine Piper PA-31 Navajo.
But the Civil Air Patrol has no plans yet to suspend the search.
“If they still think there is hope of finding the location, then they will keep going,” said CAP spokesman Lt. Col. Paul Hertel.
While each search is different, the CAP will often work for two weeks before suspending a search for a missing aircraft. They are getting plenty of support from state and county law enforcement as well.
“Beyond that, it is somewhere pretty inaccessible,” Hertel said. “In this area it is pretty difficult because the tree cover is so thick.”
Michael Bratlie, 67, disappeared June 8 during what was expected to be a South St. Paul-to-Duluth-and-back flight to break in a new engine. The search has focused on the Silver Bay area and over Lake Superior, where Bratlie was last detected by radar and cell phone signals.
Through Sunday, Civil Air Patrol pilots had logged about 630 hours in the air searching for Bratlie, their efforts supported by search crews on the ground.
Searchers have also followed up the 50 or so leads called in by people who said they heard or saw a plane matching the Navajo description.
“They have all been checked. Some of them have been checked more than once,” Hertel said. “Some have probably been checked three times now.”
Finding a downed civilian airplane isn’t usually this difficult. Aircraft carry emergency beacon transmitters that automatically send out distress calls after a crash, allowing searchers to follow the signal to the aircraft.
But searchers haven’t heard the EBT signal from Bratlie’s plane. The unit might not be working, or its connection to the antenna might have failed. Or the plane might have sunk in a lake.
“That degrades the signal quite a bit,” Hertel said.
Without an EBT signal, searchers began a methodical search after Bratlie was reported missing.
“The first thing the search aircraft will do is fly along the intended flight path,” Hertel said. They will fly back and forth along or at right angles to the flight path. “That way they can look at different angles and maybe be able to spot something easier and quicker that way.”
Ideally, each CAP search plane will be carrying a pilot, an observer in the right-front seat to search and operate the radio, and a scanner in the back-left seat searching and recording notes.
“If they see something suspicious they call it in,” Hertel said. “Usually, they are coordinating with a ground search team.”
On Friday, searchers spotted a piece of aluminum in Lake Superior they believed might have been from Bratlie’s plane, but it turned out to be from a boat. In previous searches for aircraft missing in the region, searchers have been misled by pieces of old motor vehicles and deer stands, checked out and identified by ground searchers.
Searchers have also used high technology in the effort to find Bratlie: an aircraft with advanced hyper-spectral imaging capability. It can look for objects of a specific color – such as Bratlie ‘s white plane – and identify colors that don’t fit with the normal background of an area, such as the green of a forest. But the technology may be of little use if the twin-engine airplane is submerged in water, Hertel said.
Sometimes searchers can also use radar records to help locate a specific plane. Planes carry transponders that can identify the plane with a unique code on radar. But Bratlie didn’t request flight-following service, Hertel said.
Other missing planes
The 1998 search for a Cessna 185 float plane that vanished on a flight from Duluth to Green Bay, Wis., illustrates how difficult searching for a small plane missing in the Lake Superior region can be. The plane, with two people aboard, vanished on Aug. 4 over heavy forests in the Phillips, Wis., area. More than 300 air-patrol volunteers from five states searched until Aug. 15, hampered by the lack of an EBT signal. On Aug. 26, a volunteer pilot and his friend spotted the plane’s wreckage just about five miles from search headquarters. The plane was spotted in a swampy area where it apparently had skidded into nearby woods.
Sometimes, official searchers never find missing aircraft.
In September 1994, two hunters found a helicopter that had crashed the preceding March in forest and swamp land near Wisconsin Rapids, about 90 miles south of Phillips.
In November 1990, a deer hunter found the remains of a float plane and its four occupants that had crashed in a spruce swamp 10 miles north of Island Lake nine years before. The CAP logged 10,000 hours before calling off the 1981 search.
And on Sept. 24, 1969, an Air Force jet trainer crashed in Lake Superior near Duluth during training operations. The plane and its pilot were never found.
Sunday’s search for Bratlie involved eight CAP planes, as well as four ground teams consisting of four to six people each. Volunteers from Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois all have joined in the effort, with 60 to 65 people actively involved in the search.
Gratitude for support
On Monday, CAP Capt. George Supan passed on a message that the Bratlie family “expresses their gratitude for all that everybody has been doing – the Civil Air Patrol, Coast Guard, media.”
Supan is acting as the family’s spokesman. “They are really appreciative of all the help that has been supplied to this effort,” he said.
Hertel in turn thanked the community for its support. Verizon has donated phones, and local restaurants have helped the Northland American Red Cross and Salvation Army feed volunteers.
“Everyone here is a volunteer, taking time away from their jobs and their families” because of a willingness to serve, Hertel said.
The Civil Air Patrol has more than 61,000 volunteer cadet and adult members in nearly 1,500 squadrons nationwide. It acts as a civilian auxiliary for the U.S. Air Force when performing services for the federal government. Those include emergency services. The CAP flew more than 85 percent of all federal inland search-and-rescue missions directed by the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla. According to the CAP, nearly 100 people are saved each year by air patrol members.
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