Searching by ground, air and Web

Technology is helping the virtual world contribute to the effort to find a plane and its five occupants lost in Idaho’s mountains.

kmoeller@idahostatesman.comJanuary 10, 2014 

An Anchorage pilot whose brother was flying a single-engine aircraft that disappeared east of McCall on Dec. 1 is part of a team making a final winter push to locate the plane.

“This is it,” said Dellon Smith. “Our next available chance is in the spring.”

Backed by an army of volunteers scouring Internet images and armed with new information that helped narrow the search area, the group left Wednesday on a four-day search. The plan was to take a snowcat up an old Jeep trail to a ridge east of Johnson Creek Airport.

Smith is desperate to find his brother, Dale Smith, a San Jose software executive; his niece, Amber; his nephew, Daniel, and Daniel’s wife, Sheree; and Amber’s fiance, Jonathan Norton.

After a family Thanksgiving in Baker City, Ore., Dale Smith was flying Daniel and Sheree to their home in Butte, Mont. Amber and Norton, seniors at BYU-Idaho, went along for the ride.

“At first you feel guilty sleeping in your warm bed at night,” said Dellon Smith, a father of five and a commercial pilot. “You want to spend every minute out there. You know they’re out there.”

On Dec. 12, the official search was called off amid difficult conditions, including subzero temperatures, heavy snow, poor visibility and treacherous terrain.

The private search never really stopped.

“Planes and helicopters are flying out there every day. Snowmobilers are all over up in here,” Valley County Sheriff’s Lt. Dan Smith said. “Everybody has been looking.”

Meridian resident Kevin Bentley, co-owner of Boise software company Cognitics Inc., shot video on two flights, most recently Monday. Bentley went up with friend and fellow pilot Jim Hudson, who on the second trip tried several times to simulate an emergency descent.

Bentley shot video with a GoPro and with his smartphone.

“It filled up the memory on my phone,” said Bentley, who has spent untold hours processing his video and helping other pilots process their footage.

SURPRISING SUPPORT

The tiny town of Yellow Pine has supported the effort in many ways, including hiking and camping out while looking for the plane, Dellon Smith said.

But that’s not all. An invisible army of volunteers is helping search online.

Hundreds of people as far away as Europe and Australia have spent the past month poring over satellite and video images of the area where the plane is thought to have gone down.

Almost 2,300 people are members of a Facebook page (“Tomnod: Smith Plane Search”) where the images are discussed. The website “SearchForDalesPlane” lets family, friends and supporters keep up on the very latest developments.

“It’s totally amazing, especially when we think about the fact that we don’t know a large portion of them,” said Crystal Christensen, daughter of missing pilot Dale Smith. “It’s crazy that 2,000 people want to help our family. But then again, I also know that some of the coolest people in the world are on that airplane.”

VOLUNTEERS SCOUR IMAGES ONLINE

Sylvia Leach, a 51-year-old stay-at-home mom near Aspen, Colo., said she hasn’t gone to bed before 3 a.m. in a month.

She estimates that she spends about 10 hours spread throughout each day at a desktop computer with a high-definition monitor looking at images that might contain clues to the plane’s whereabouts.

Participants compare and contrast searchers’ images with satellite images on GoogleEarth. A pair of images a volunteer posted Tuesday — with bright red circles on areas where something out of the ordinary was spotted — had 243 comments by Thursday. They are part of an intense discussion about what the images show, where the plane is, how to zoom in and whether it’s in the designated search area.

“I’ve made tons of friends,” Leach said. “What I’ve gotten out of this is renewal of the human spirit. There’s so many people out there who are compassionate and good.”

One friend she’s made in this Web-based effort is Christine Hall, a 48-year-old Salt Lake mother of three who works as a medical biller and coder.

Hall had a magnifying glass installed on her personal laptop to help her scour the images of Idaho’s backcountry. She said she’s found things that looked promising.

“Turns out to be a rock, or a dead tree,” she told the Statesman via instant messaging on Facebook.

Trees have hampered the search effort in two major ways: It’s hard to see the forest floor, and it’s even harder to travel through downed trees.

A TEEN TAKES THE LEAD

Friends of Dale Smith’s family in San Jose, Calif., have been instrumental online.

Nadine and Tim Bird created and manage the search website. Susannah Goldberg created the Facebook page.

Goldberg is a 17-year-old home-schooled senior who wants to be a chiropractor. She had Dale Smith as a seminary teacher.

“Everybody wanted to help out in some way,” said Goldberg. “The Smith family, they’re just so awesome. ... It’s clear how nice, how Christ-like, how wonderful they are.”

She created the Facebook page to give people trying to decipher satellite images a place to communicate.

“We didn’t know what we were looking at,” Goldberg said.

Within days, the number of people logging in to talk about the images had grown to 400. Now the Facebook page has 17 people who help administer the site.

“I didn’t know I was going to be in charge of the online search. That wasn’t my intention when I made the page,” said Goldberg.

NEW INFO FOR LATEST SEARCH EFFORT

Dellon Smith said a half-dozen private planes were lined up to participate in the search this week, but were grounded by snow and poor weather. His ground search team of about a dozen people is focusing on an area about a mile east of the Johnson Creek Airport.


View Larger Map

The grass-covered landing strip is just a few miles from Yellow Pine, about 50 miles east of McCall. That’s roughly the area where Dale Smith’s plane became disabled by ice, communication was lost and the plane disappeared from radar.

New information helped narrow the search area. Air traffic experts were able to find a “ghost” radar point, or a ping, that came 30 seconds after the plane’s last confirmed location. The Smith family also just received the audio of conversations between Dale Smith and air traffic controllers in Salt Lake City.

Dellon Smith said searchers have waited weeks for the audio to be reviewed and released by federal officials.

“It’s taken us a long time to get that,” he said, “and it’s been really tough.”

The plane was at 10,000 feet when it dropped off radar and could have traveled miles from the last known point in any direction. The plane is white, making it harder to locate in snow-covered, densely forested mountains.

“It looks like he may have begun the process to divert to McCall, but he didn’t get that far,” Dellon Smith said. “It was only a matter of seconds before he dropped off radar.”

Several on the ill-fated plane have advanced knowledge of wilderness survival and all have been snow camping.

Dellon Smith and his niece, Crystal Christensen, keep hoping for a miracle.

“Until you find something, there is always a sliver of our thinking, of your heart and your mind, that there’s a chance they could be alive,” Dellon Smith said. “We all understand the realities of spending a month in subzero temperatures, possibly with very serious injuries.”

Christensen agreed.

“We’re not crazy. We’re not naive,” she said. “We’re very religious and believe in miracles, that God has the power to do whatever He wants.”

Katy Moeller: 377-6413

Idaho Statesman is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service