Staff and wire report
A Cessna airplane missing since New Year's Day crashed about 23 miles southwest of here, killing all four on board, Valley County Sheriff Glen Meier said Sunday.
The plane, a single-engine Cessna 182, was headed to Havre to make an emergency landing. It was flown by Cut Bank car dealership owner Bill Newman, 45, and carried his sons Lance, 14, and Ray, 24, and Ray's fiancee, Jessica Grode, 21, of Ipswich, S.D.
''They were killed on impact,'' said Meier.
Meier was at the crash site late this morning with a group that planned to recover the bodies, according to the Valley County Sheriff's Office.
The plane was spotted from the air about 3:15 p.m. Sunday by an aircraft flying out of Glasgow, and the pilot confirmed the tail number, said Debbie Alke with the Helena office of the Montana Aeronautics Division.
Meier flew over the crash site Sunday afternoon and said the plane was partially covered with snow.
''It's a miracle the guy saw it,'' he said. ''The guy that spotted it, he thought about it for a little while, and asked the pilot to turn around. The plane's white, the snow's white. It was tough to see flying over it when we knew where it was.''
Newman had flown to Mobridge, S.D., to pick up Grode and was returning to Cut Bank Thursday when he radioed that he was encountering stormy conditions southeast of Glasgow about 6:30 p.m. in the rugged region near Fort Peck Reservoir, officials said.
Newman's last radio transmission announced his intention to divert his flight and make an emergency landing in Havre, said Leif Torgerson, search coordinator for the Cut Bank area of the Montana Aeronautics Division and an employee at Newman's car dealership.
"He talked to Cedar City Flight Watch, and was aware that weather was deteriorating in Cut Bank," he said. "He changed the destination from Cut Bank to Havre. He was south-southeast of Glasgow at the time of the radio transmission."
Although the searchers are devastated to find that no one survived the crash, Torgerson said finding closure is important.
"It becomes more difficult as time goes on, not only for the searchers but also for the family," he said. "Closure is important, and the sooner you can come to closure, the better it is."
Law enforcement and volunteer teams from across the Hi-Line participated in the search for the downed plane.
"The one thing I want to emphasize was the outstanding search support we had from Glasgow, Malta, Chinook and Havre," Torgerson said. "We also had great support from the outlying rural communities. The farmers and ranchers volunteered to do anything and everything they could. I consider that effort to be a Herculean effort.
"We had conditions that were extreme cold, limited visibility. I think the effort was just outstanding."
More than two dozen planes combed the area between Glasgow and Havre searching for Newman's aircraft, Torgerson said.
"We had 10 airplanes that departed from Cut Bank and Shelby. Six of them were able to get to Havre the following day," he said. "Then there were two to four more airplanes that joined the search from the Havre area. There were 12 to 15 airplanes from the Glasgow area, a couple more from Malta and Chinook, and several farmer-rancher pilots."
Other volunteers searched the ground by snowmobile.
Torgerson said search efforts focused on the Three Buttes area of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation because Newman would have crossed it if he kept a straight path to Havre from his last known position.
"That would have put him in line with his last known position into Havre," Torgerson said. "Of course we were trying to get out there as quickly as possible, because with the weather, if there were survivors, you want to get there as fast as you can."
Other aerial and ground search crews combed the Turner-Hogeland area, Torgerson said.
"We just felt as pilots, that if weather had forced him to change course, he would have focused on the highway to see vehicle lights and follow them to Havre. We were looking in that area and as far north as Canada."
"We had a large contingent of searchers from Cut Bank that searched the ground via snowmobile," he said. " We even had people from as far away as Helena come to help."
Deputies with the Blaine County Sheriff's Office searched areas on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation on Friday and Saturday, Sheriff Glenn Huestis said. When poor weather conditions grounded civilian aircraft, deputies and volunteers from the Cut Bank area hiked and drove sections of the reservation near Three Buttes, Huestis said.
Although the weather grounded civilian aircraft early in the weekend, Border Patrol air units equipped with more advanced instrumentation were able to take to the air. A Border Patrol aircraft searched the Three Buttes area on Saturday, but found nothing, Huestis said.
Torgerson lauded Blaine County for its efforts during the search.
"Glenn Huestis was active from the get-go and was very, very supportive of our efforts," he said.
The Border Patrol flew search missions on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, spokesman Mark Kemp said this morning. The flights consisted primarily of searches over the Bear Paw Mountains, he said.
The high temperature in Glasgow Sunday was minus 20 degrees, the National Weather Service reported.
A break in the weather allowed 13 planes to take to the skies on Sunday, along with a helicopter from Malmstrom Air Force Base, Alke said.
The Malmstrom helicopter also flew over the crash site and reported seeing much debris, Alke said.
Newman, who owns the plane that crashed, earned his pilot's license when he was in high school, and was recertified to fly in September 2003 after a 20-year lapse, said his wife, Debbie Newman.
A Federal Aviation Administration official said the plane was believed equipped with an emergency locator beacon, but no signal was picked up.