Several factors hamper search and rescue efforts

By Pat Caldwell, WesCom News Service January 06, 2014 09:40 am

Dale Smith, 51, was piloting a Beech Bonanza airplane over rugged, isolated backcountry of Idaho when he lost radio contact. Courtesy photo.
Dale Smith, 51, was piloting a Beech Bonanza airplane over rugged, isolated backcountry of Idaho when he lost radio contact. Courtesy photo.
On the first day of December death hovered beyond the line of mountains at the edge of the Baker Valley.

There are a multitude of items that can spark an aircraft tragedy but on this day over some of the most rugged and secluded timberland in the West it was ice that killed.

And while ice is the primary suspect in the disappearance of a Beech Bonanza in the thick forests and deep snow of Idaho wilderness north of the town of Cascade, plain old bad luck also conspired to turn a routine flight into a tragedy. 

The story of pilot Dale Smith, 51, and the passengers in his Beech Bonanza is still very much a tale without a final ending. The conclusion to this saga, most likely tragic, may not arrive until spring when the snow melts.

Smith left Baker City and was on the way to Butte, Mont., with four other people in his plane. Smith’s children, Daniel and Amber, along with Daniel’s wife, Sheree, and Amber’s fiancé, Jonathan Norton, were on board when the plane disappeared.

An extensive search and rescue operation mounted by Idaho authorities hours after the plane was reported missing was eventually called off Dec. 13. Search and rescue personnel struggled against deep snow and rough terrain around the Johnson Creek Airstrip three miles south of the small community of Yellow Pine in Valley County, Idaho. Hope anyone survived the crash of the plane dwindled since the search was called off as the area suffered heavy snowfall and endured subzero temperatures. 

The search and rescue incident commander, Valley County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Dan Smith, said the conditions the day the plane was lost on radar were severe.

“He was flying about 13,500 feet. We know on that day there was limited or no visibility,” Smith said.

The story of pilot Dale Smith underscores how bad weather can suddenly menace a flight over remote, rugged terrain. The story also highlights how difficult it is — even in an era of cutting edge technology — for officials to find and rescue a lost pilot in the remotest regions of America.

Weather can change in an instant

In the mountains of Eastern Oregon and Western Idaho, the weather can gain an edge in seconds. Lt. Smith said the weather that day did not start out rough but eventually conditions turned severe.

“Planes before him did not encounter the weather he did. Maybe he saw something where he thought he’d be fine,” Smith said.

The six-seat BE36 Beech Bonanza apparently began to encounter real trouble near the Johnson Creek Airstrip, a thin sliver of flat ground in the Central Idaho forest often utilized in the summer by pilots. 

That’s when Dale Smith — apparently now navigating his plane solely on instruments — radioed the Beech Bonanza was beginning to ice up and was losing altitude. 

Then his engine quit.

“We tried to get him to the Salmon (Idaho) airport but he said he didn’t think he could make it there. His rate of descent was very steep. We are all assuming that losing altitude that fast the chances are slim he could have pulled out of it,” Lt. Smith said.

At that point, Lt. Smith said, the viable alternatives for the plane, its pilot and the passengers were narrow.

“The only other option was to follow a canyon and glide down,” Lt. Smith said. 

Lt. Smith said authorities eventually determined that the plane probably fell to earth within a two- to four-mile radius of the Johnson Creek Airstrip. 

“But the ridge where he disappeared off radar, we don’t know if he headed into the ridge, or went left or right,” Lt. Smith said.

At first glance, two or three miles from an airstrip may seem a manageable amount of terrain to conduct a successful search and rescue operation. Except the area around the Johnson Creek Airstrip is rugged, very steep and covered with thick timber and brush. Plus several feet of snow. Add into the mix severe mountain weather and the task becomes even more challenging.

“It’s so thick we couldn’t get people in there,” Lt. Smith said.

ELT systems can aid in search

One key factor regarding the search for planes revolves around what are known as Emergency Locator Transmitters. There are two types of ELTs — an older model and a newer, upgraded device. The older type emits a distinctive sound and is designed to be triggered on impact. However, the older type of ELT can be stymied by rugged terrain and the battery generally lasts for only three days.

Lt. Smith confirmed the Beech Bonanza carried the older type of ELT.

“They require an exterior antenna. So if it gets broke it is not putting out any audio,” Lt. Smith said.

Modern technology is not infallible, according to Mike Arman, a longtime Florida-based pilot and a Federal Aviation Administration-licensed advanced ground school instructor. 

“No ELT is totally foolproof. They can still be destroyed in the crash or by a post-crash fire. Tracking and locating these ELT signals is slow and tedious involving radio direction finders in airplanes flying a grid pattern,” Arman said.

Several days after the plane disappeared off radar, officials did detect a weak ELT signal but it did not lead search and rescue personnel to the missing aircraft.

Smith said the search was called off reluctantly but with the knowledge all viable avenues of examination were exhausted.

“We did everything possible with the conditions and searched everything you can search,” he said.

Backcountry should not be underestimated

Local officials do not often encounter a search and rescue operation that revolves around a crashed plane.

“It’s pretty rare, at least in our county,” Union County Sheriff Boyd Rasmussen said.

Rasmussen said that in any search and rescue operation time — and the weather — play a pivotal role.

“When you have extreme conditions every day that goes by is critical. Weather conditions are primary,” he said.

Rasmussen also pointed out that the vast wilderness of Eastern Oregon and Western Idaho should not be underestimated. 

“If you look at it, there is a lot of country. You start looking at how much area is out there and it is a remarkable thing to find someone. Even here, locally, you get on the back side of Mt. Emily or Mt. Harris and there is a lot of area back there. It is easy to hide a small plane,” he said.

Wallowa County Sheriff Steve Rogers also said his office and local search and rescue personnel rarely are called out to find a crashed plane.

“From time to time. Most are self-located before we get close. We’ve been real lucky up here,” he said.

Rogers also conceded, though, that the search for a plane lost in the high country is a challenge.

“When they go down in the heavy timber they are hard to find,” he said.

Arman said the match between an airplane and severe weather is always a one-sided affair.

“Weather can change suddenly, and in a contest between an airplane and the weather, the weather always wins,” he said.

Ice, which likely played the critical role in Smith’s crash, can create a host of challenges very suddenly, Arman said.

“Ice will do it every time. Planes don’t fly well in ice,” he said.