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Missing plane search intensifies

| June 29, 2010 6:59 AM

Aerial search efforts ramped up this morning near the National Bison Range for a single-engine plane missing since Sunday afternoon.

Ground searchers looked through the night for the plane carrying four people: Inter Lake reporters Melissa Weaver and Erika Hoefer, both of Kalispell, and two Missoula men, pilot Sonny Kless and Brian Williams.

Ten private planes continued the search this morning with military aircraft from Malmstrom Air Force Base scheduled to join them later, authorities said.

Searchers also launched boats into the Flathead River to the west to search its remote islands for the plane.

“It’s unfortunately a very large area,” Lake County sheriff’s spokeswoman Carey Cooley said.

New reports continued to come in from people who say they saw the airplane flying on Sunday afternoon, but officials so far had not learned anything substantive.

Federal Aviation Adminstration radar data showed the airplane traveled from Kalispell north along the Whitefish Range, entered Glacier National Park airspace, then headed south along the Swan Mountain Range and flew across Flathead Lake to the Bison Range, Flathead County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ernie Freebury said.

The 1968 Piper Arrow, a blue-and-white single-engine plane, last was tracked by radar at about 300 feet above ground level west of the National Bison Range at Moiese.

It went off the radar screen at 4:02 p.m., Freebury said.

The pilot, Kless, last made radio contact with the tower at Glacier Park International Airport at 2:11 p.m., reporting that he was east of Kalispell, traveling south to north. 

Freebury said cell-phone tower information also was analyzed.

Flathead County Sheriff Mike Meehan said Hoefer last updated her Facebook page at 1:40 p.m. with a message reading, “We’re flying to the park and we’re later going to a barbecue.”

The last voice message from any of the individuals’ phones occurred at 1:51 p.m.

However, there was text messaging between Weaver and Hoefer at 3:47 p.m. 

“The last text they sent pinged off the Ronan tower,” Freebury said. “That was our second confirmation, besides the radar data, that they were in that area.”

Meehan said the type of plane involved was carrying an older-style transponder and bore the tail number N-7581J. The plane is registered to Joel Woodruff of Stevensville.

“It is our understanding that it’s an old [transponder], and you would have to fly almost directly over it to make contact, and that’s a hindrance,” Meehan said.

Weaver, a University of Montana graduate from Billings, and Hoefer, from Beloit, Wis., both began work at the Inter Lake in December 2009.

Weaver is the daughter of Daniel and Katherine Weaver of Billings; Hoefer is the daughter of William and Candy Hoefer of Beloit. - Hagadone Newspapers staff

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