Searchers returned to the skies over Katmai National Park and Preserve on Thursday as the hunt for a missing plane and its four occupants moved into its sixth day.
The efforts so far have involved aircraft crisscrossing an estimated 10,000 square miles of ground area and 17,500 air miles, but there was no deadline to end the search, said John Quinley, the National Park Service's assistant regional director for communications in Alaska.
"We've divided the whole area, the entire search area from Becharof Lake on the south up past McNeil on the north, divided that into grids, and our goal is to make sure that we’ve covered every section of that grid at least once," he said in a phone call from his Anchorage office. "The grids that are in the high probability areas have been searched multiple times already, really.
"We started off with a search that focused on the most likely routes that they would have followed. And now we’re into a grid search which sort of does an equal amount of search effort regardless of the terrain you’re covering," continued Mr. Quinley. "So some of those, by necessity, some of those grid flights are probably into the quadrupletic coverage on some of those routes and we’re hitting other areas for the first time.”
Despite that intense effort, so far there has been no sign of, and no signal from, the maroon de Havilland Beaver with white stripes (tail number N9313Z) since it left Swikshak Lagoon early Saturday afternoon for the park headquarters at King Salmon to the west with the pilot and three Park Service maintenance workers. The three -- Mason McLeod, 26, and brothers Neal and Seth Spradlin -- had been tearing down the old Swikshak patrol cabin to make way for a new cabin. Piloting the plane was Marco Alletto.
On Thursday the plan was to again have aircraft follow a north to south pattern and focus on high priority areas. Officials added that rescuers hope to have “new eyes” on the search area. The U.S. Coast Guard continued to search the coast and the Civil Air Patrol was working on the northern search areas.
The terrain being covered contains a mix of vegetation, from alders, willows and low-lying brush along the coastline to thicker woodlands inland and even barren alpine terrain up higher, said Mr. Quinley. Some of the vegetation was thick enough that it theoretically could "swallow" the plane, he said.
"There are many areas in there which could do just that. Some of that coastal area, which is just brushy and alders, willows that, depending on the height of it, it might swallow up a plane," said the Park Service official. "And then you have other areas which are, as you get up in towards the mountains and the passes, some of it is sort of more alpine. And then some of those other valleys as you get inland are all wooded, which could again, depending on how things happened, could sort of keep you from viewing anything."
Though there's been no sign of debris from the single-engine float plane, the searchers have seen other items in the search area.
"We found towards the coast a busted up shipping container. We’ve found fuel containers that were not associated with our folks, probably came off of a boat or some other plane," Mr. Quinley said. "So we’ve been able to spot fairly small objects in the search, but nothing that we have found -- there haven’t been very many -- but the few that we’ve found have not had anything to do with the plane.”
The NPS Alaska Incident Management Team, led by Incident Commander Richard Moore, has been assisting Katmai National Park by managing the search efforts for the missing aircraft.
Whether any of the plane's occupants might have survived a crash is impossible to say, but Mr. Quinley pointed to the recent plane crash that killed former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, as a reason to hope those aboard the de Havilland Beaver could have survived a crash.
"As we saw, sadly, most recently, the Ted Stevens crash, four people survived I think. Some of them were badly hurt, but they weren’t so badly hurt that they couldn’t have lived for, probably, a while," he said. "And the weather in this search area has been better than it was there, in terms of temperatures and clear skies."
However, the official feared the weather would not cooperate for much longer.
“We have had a couple of days of pretty good weather -- given the summer that we’ve been having -- and I don’t think that weather’s going to keep holding for us, it’s going to turn here," said Mr. Quinley. "It’s already starting to get crummy down on the south end of the search area. That’s what we’re up against.”