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Search for missing Md. pilot continues

April 28, 2006|by DON AINES

ST. THOMAS, Pa. - The search for a missing Maryland pilot entered its third day Thursday, covering a 50-mile radius around the St. Thomas area with 13 Civil Air Patrol aircraft, a Pennsylvania State Police helicopter and nine ground search and rescuer teams.

David Weiss, 72, of Bethesda, Md., has been missing since Tuesday afternoon when he failed to return from a routine training flight into Pennsylvania. Lt. Col. Richard Runyan of the Civil Air Patrol said Wednesday that Weiss had not filed a flight plan but was to have made some practice landing approaches to airfields, including the Franklin County Regional Airport.

"We are basically looking at the whole area, a 50-mile radius," said Lt. Col. Jon Royer, who was in charge of ground operations out of Hagerstown Regional Airport. The ground teams, ranging in size from six to 12 people were combing the area, including parts of Maryland, he said.

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The search is centered in Franklin County because unanswered cell phone calls to Weiss's phone were routed to a cell tower in St. Thomas. Much of Wednesday's ground search activity by Civil Air Patrol volunteers was run out of the nearby St. Thomas Volunteer Fire Co., which was still being used as a "forward base" Thursday, Royer said.

"We've been in contact with the cell phone company" to help with the search, Royer said.

In general, the range of a cell phone is about four miles, depending on terrain, according to John Johnson, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless. If a call to a cell phone is not answered, however, it cannot be triangulated and the location can only be approximated to an area comprising about one-third of the tower's coverage area.

"That would be a big area to search," he said.

"The network is really not designed for call tracing. It's designed for call delivery," Johnson said. "Until the connection is actually completed with the customer, we're only going to have incomplete awareness" of where the call is being delivered, he said.

Even if the phone has a GPS locator, that does not come into play unless the customer makes a 911 call and is within an area where the 911 center is equipped to track the call to its specific longitude and latitude, Johnson said.

In rugged terrain, the task of finding a missing plane is made more difficult by narrow folds in the earth and spring foliage that can conceal the aircraft. Antrim Township Administrator Ben Thomas Jr. said he participated in searches for a missing aircraft in the early 1970s as a Civil Air Patrol cadet ranger.

Thomas said the plane crashed in June or July, but the crash site on Timmons Mountain in northern Franklin County was not found until the beginning of deer season in late fall. The wreckage was hidden beneath a stand of evergreen trees, which kept it from being seen from the air, he said.

"We searched for that plane for months" before a hunter came across the site, Thomas said. Once found, the recovery of the bodies and wreckage was also a challenge.

"The terrain was extremely difficult because of some of the huge boulders," he said.

Lt. Col. Jim Steinmeier of the Civil Air Patrol said it is in charge of the search and the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board usually do not get involved until it is completed.

"Once the aircraft is located, our inspectors will go to the scene and so will the National Transportation Safety Board," said FAA spokeswoman Arlene Murray. While the FAA assists in field work, the NTSB is responsible for investigating and determining the probable cause of civil aviation accidents, she said.

Lt. George Tudder with the Civil Air Patrol said there was nothing new to report at 8:45 p.m. Thursday. He said the search would begin again at 7 a.m. today.

"We will continue absolutely until something is found," he said.

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