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Searchers comb Franklin County mountains for signs of pilot

April 27, 2006|by DON AINES

ST. THOMAS, PA.

More than 100 searchers and about 10 aircraft from three states - volunteers from the Civil Air Patrol, area firefighters and Pennsylvania State Police among them - were combing the mountains of Franklin County Wednesday looking for any sign of a Maryland pilot whose plane has been missing since Tuesday and whose last known location was in the St. Thomas area.

"That mountain there is wicked," said Major Herb Cahalen of the Civil Air Patrol, indicating the Tuscarora mountain range northwest of the command center at the St. Thomas Volunteer Fire Co. "A lot of loose rock, very steep and dense brush," he said of one area he searched.

Cahalen, who runs the Hawk Mountain Ranger School in Hamburg, Pa., was among more than 70 Civil Air Patrol volunteers who had joined the search for 72-year-old David Weiss of Bethesda, Md., early Wednesday. Weiss took off in a Cessna 172 from the Montgomery County Air Park in Gaithersburg, Md., on Tuesday about noon on what was to have been a routine 2 1/2-hour training flight, said Susan Dutko, the operations and training officer for the Franklin County Department of Emergency Services.

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Dutko said at 7:30 p.m., crews were "ramping down" the search and reviewing plans to continue the search this morning.

She said searchers were "following every possible lead and every possible angle, but everything came up cold."

Crews plan to "hit the ground running at dawn" to continue the search, she said.

By Wednesday afternoon, one Maryland State Police helicopter, two Pennsylvania State Police helicopters and eight airplanes piloted by Civil Air Patrol members had taken part in the search, along with ground teams going through the area on all-terrain vehicles or on foot, Dutko said.

Emergency Services was notified of the missing plane on Wednesday about 2 a.m., she said, with volunteers from Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia starting to search the area at daylight.

Overnight temperatures dropped into the low 30s and about a quarter of an inch of rain fell in the area, according to the National Weather Service in State College, Pa.

Authorities had reason to believe Weiss was in the airspace over Franklin County because of a signal from his GPS-equipped cell phone. Incident commander Lt. Col. Richard Runyan of the Civil Air Patrol said it was a signal that was picked up by a cell tower as opposed to a call.

The signal was picked up for about three hours Tuesday afternoon, Dutko said, but the county's 911 system has yet to be equipped to pinpoint the longitude and latitude of cell phone communications.

Runyan, who came in from Middleburg, Pa., said authorities were working with the cell phone company to try and narrow the area where the plane might have gone down. A high-winged single-engine monoplane, the Cessna 172 has a cruising speed of about 120 mph and a flight endurance of about five hours, he said.

One search plane picked up a brief signal from an emergency locator transmitter signal on Wednesday about 11 a.m., but Dutko said that could have been one from another aircraft that went off accidentally. By the afternoon, the search had been broadened to include northern Maryland, southern Pennsylvania up to the Chambersburg area, and toward Mercersburg, Pa., she said.

Aircraft were doing a grid search along the mountain ridges because of the greater air turbulence that occurs along ridge lines and could destabilize a small plane, she said.

Runyan said ground operations were being conducted out of St. Thomas and air operations from Hagerstown. Some of those participating in the search know Weiss, a fellow Civil Air Patrol member, Runyan said.

Weiss was an experienced pilot with "well over 1,000 hours" of flight time, Dutko said. The blue and white Cessna that Weiss was flying was operated by the Congressional Flying Club, authorities said.

The air search would continue until about an hour before dusk, Runyan said. Dutko said the ground search could continue well into the night.

"You never give up," Runyan said.

The National Transportation Safety Board reported 1,669 general aviation accidents in 2005 in which 562 people were killed.

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