Plane found; search team recovers bodies

Posted: Wednesday, July 06, 2005

A U.S. Coast Guard search team Tuesday morning located what was believed to be the wreckage of a Cessna 207 airplane on the north side of West Amatuli Island in the Barren Islands. The Cessna with three men on board was reported missing out of Homer on Sunday. Pararescuemen from the Alaska Air National Guard climbed to the crash site at 2:45 p.m. Tuesday and confirmed the tail number on the crashed plane was that of the missing Cessna. There were no survivors.

Killed in the crash were John Phillips, 63, of Columbia, S.C.; James Leverett, 50, of Charleston, S.C., and Ken O'Connor, 77, of Charlotte, N.C. Phillips, a flight instructor, was believed to be the pilot, said Alaska State Trooper spokesman Greg Wilkinson. The men were all licensed pilots and had rented the Cessna from Aero Tech Flight Service in Anchorage.

West Amatuli Island is about 50 miles southwest of Homer, between Seldovia and the north end of Kodiak Island.

The Air Guard rescue team recovered the bodies by about 4:15 p.m. They were taken to Kulis Air Guard Base in Anchorage to be handed over to the State Medical Examiner for possible autopsies. The body of a pilot is routinely examined following a fatal crash to help establish a possible cause, Wilkinson said. The cause of the crash is not known at this time, he said.

Phillips' wife, Anne Phillips, reported the men missing about 10 a.m. Sunday morning after they failed to arrive at their next destination. Anchor Point troopers found the men's luggage in their room at the Best Western Bidarka Inn in Homer.

The plane was last reported seen Friday afternoon by Homer Flight Service at the Homer Airport. Andy Smircich of Homer Air said the plane bought fuel from them Friday afternoon.

The pilot did not file a flight plan, Wilkinson said.

"All indications are they did not plan on being gone long," he said.

"They didn't even whisper where they were going," said Major Mike Haller, spokesman for the Alaska Air National Guard.

"We wish we had a flight plan in our hands and we could track along their flight plan and get to them sooner," he said Tuesday before the plane was located.

Troopers launched a search Sunday centered on Homer that expanded in a broad circle up to 500 miles. The Air National Guard 211th Rescue Squadron began searching with crews in an HC-130 Hercules and an HH-60 Pavehawk helicopter. The Coast Guard also sent an NCH-130 Hercules and an H60-J Jayhawk helicopter out of Kodiak to search the coast. Alaska Bureau of Wildlife Enforcement troopers from Anchor Point also searched coves in lower Cook Inlet.

Civil Air Patrol squadrons from Homer, Kenai, Soldotna, Elmendorf, Birchwood and Seward joined the search. Homer Police and other police also checked local air strips. With no flight plan to follow, CAP aircraft with pilot and observer crews began flying search grids.

"The Kenai Peninsula is the size of Ireland," said Alex Clark, a CAP volunteer and pilot. "You basically eyeball every place back and forth like you're vacuuming the place."

Ground crews also drove the peninsula with radios listening for emergency locator transmitter signals.

Haller said the search ran from Sunday morning to 11 that night, from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday and from 7 a.m. until the wreckage was found Tuesday. Eight to nine aircraft were in the air at any time, with crews on the CAP planes of between two and three members, he said.

"They do this for the love of it, because it's the right thing to do," Haller said of the CAP volunteers.

Haller said the incident reminded him of a similar search last Thanksgiving week for Anchorage pilot Mike Holman.

Holman was lost for six days at Koyuktolik Bay south of Seldovia after he deviated from his flight plan to Seldovia and crashed near Koyuktolik Bay, also known as Dogfish Bay. Holman eventually hiked to an abandoned hunting camp and found a marine radio. He radioed a passing Coast Guard airplane and was found safe.

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