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No sign of missing pilot

Coast Guard halts search; troopers to keep looking

Posted: Thursday, January 11, 2007

The search for a retired Alaska State Trooper resumed along the icy shoreline and waters of the Redoubt Bay area in Cook Inlet on Wednesday, but more than a day after his plane went down, Randy Crawford, 55, of Soldotna, remained missing.

The Coast Guard suspended its search for Crawford at 4 p.m. Wednesday. A Coast Guard helicopter and an Alaska State Trooper helicopter found no sign of Crawford in the 384-square-mile search area.

“Suspending a case is never easy. However, we gave a maximum effort using Coast Guard, National Guard and Alaska State Trooper aviation assets,” said Coast Guard Cmdr. Scott Pollock.

A trooper search will resume Thursday if a predicted storm front does not move in, said trooper spokesman Greg Wilkinson.

“We’re tentatively scheduled to go out there again, weather permitting,” he said.

A Coast Guard HH65 helicopter from Kodiak searched the shoreline Wednesday along Redoubt Bay, refueled, then searched the water in the inlet along the same path, according to Petty Officer Sara Francis, a Coast Guard spokesperson.

The trooper helicopter focused on ice floes, she said.

She said searchers were in the air for 32 total hours. The Coast Guard helicopter searched for six hours while the trooper helicopter searched four hours on Wednesday.

Crawford was last heard from at about 10:30 a.m. Tuesday during a mayday call he made to an FAA flight tower at Kenai Municipal Airport from the Cessna 207 he was flying from Kenai to Kokhimak.

At 1:41 p.m. Tuesday, the plane was found partially submerged beneath Cook Inlet waters in Redoubt Bay about 2 1/2 miles from shore by an aircraft searching for it.

Later the Seabulk Nevada, an oil industry support vessel, approached the plane and, using a crane, pulled the plane by its tail onto the vessel’s deck. The plane was intact, but Crawford was not found inside.

The U. S. Coast Guard and troopers resumed the search for Crawford on Wednesday morning, and with the help of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association tried to determine where Cook Inlet currents may have carried anything that left the plane from where it was found about halfway between Kalgin Island and West Foreland.

The tide in Cook Inlet was slack in the area at 10 a.m. Tuesday, and then began moving out of the inlet. The tide reached peak ebb at 1:15 p.m. and became slack again at about 4 p.m.

Anything that left the plane from where it was found could have either gone down the west side of Kalgin Island, or down the mid-channel rip, a dominant outgoing current system that goes down the east side of Kalgin Island.

“This is an incredibly complex portion of Cook Inlet,” said John Whitney, a NOAA scientific support coordinator for Alaska. “Stuff floating where he went down could either go right into the mid-channel rip or down the west side of Kalgin Island.”

Whitney said he would guess anything that came from the plane from where it was found would have gone down the west side of the island, where it would not have been immediately flushed out of the inlet.

“Things don’t go all the way down the west side of the island and then continue down that coast line,” he said.

Instead, he said, anything that may have floated down the west side of the island from the plane during the ebb tide would have moved back up alongside the island again during the flood tide, and then back and forth again as the tide shifts until it rounded the northern end of the island and entered the mid-channel rip on the east side of the island which washes outward from the inlet.

Whitney said it would likely take a couple of days before anything washed to the west side of the island rounded the north end of the island to the east side and into the mid-channel current.

The plane retrieved from the inlet appeared to have sustained little damage, causing some to wonder whether Crawford’s plane landed on an ice pan before it sank, instead of diving into the inlet.

On Tuesday, the inlet was thickly covered with ice, particularly for this time of year, and it is possible Crawford may have brought the plane to a stop on an ice pan which then gave way under the plane’s weight, said Kathleen Cole, a sea ice forecaster with NOAA’s Alaska Pacific Forecast Center.

Anywhere from 80 to 100 percent ice coverage can be found in areas of Cook Inlet north of Kenai and some ice pans may be as thick as two feet, she said.

“There are definitely some pans out there that are really big,” she said.

It’s possible that Crawford landed on the edge of a pan that then yielded under the plane’s weight and tipped it into the water, she said.

“You’d have to be a really good pilot, but we have a lot of really good pilots in Alaska,” she said.

And it’s likely that there were ice pans thick enough to support the weight of a person, but traveling over the ice pans toward shore would have been difficult, she said.

“The problem is when you get to the edge of one of those it will tip you off,” she said.

And getting on to an ice pan would present the same problem, tipping toward the water until the person reaches the middle of the pan.

Associated Press material was used in this report.

Patrice Kohl can be reached at patrice.kohl@peninsulaclarion.com.



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