Searchers hope missing floatplane set down in cove

August 22, 2010 

A massive search Sunday evening over a mountainous stretch of Southwest Alaska failed to find a missing floatplane carrying three National Park Service employees headed to King Salmon.

The Park Service identified the missing workers as Mason McLeod, 26, and two brothers, Neal Spradlin, 28, and Seth Spradlin, 20. The name of the pilot is not being released until his family can be notified.

The search for the four involves dozens of people and has included aircraft from the U.S. Coast Guard, the Alaska Air National Guard, the Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Alaska State Troopers and a private air service, said Katmai National Park Superintendent Ralph Moore. King Salmon is about 285 miles west of Anchorage.

The missing de Havilland Beaver floatplane, owned by Branch River Air Service of King Salmon and equipped with an emergency locator transmitter, vanished after leaving Swikshak Lagoon early Saturday afternoon, according to the Park Service.

The Katmai National Park employees, who worked in maintenance, were in Swikshak, east of King Salmon, to work on replacing a deteriorated ranger station, Moore said.

They had been holed up for days waiting for construction supplies but were stymied by the weather, said John Quinley, Park Service spokesman.

BROTHERS ON BOARD

Neal Spradlin and his younger brother Seth both were born and raised in Westfield, Ind., said their father, Charles Spradlin, a full gospel minister there. Both love the outdoors. Neal is adventuresome and a mountain climber, his father said. He settled in Alaska about five years ago and was a permanent employee of Katmai, living in Girdwood during the off season.

This summer and last, Seth joined Neal in Alaska to work at Katmai, hoping to save money for college, his father said. Seth is an artist who specializes in acrylic wildlife paintings. He has been winning painting awards for years, his father said.

Spradlin said he knew the searchers were looking hard for his sons, two of his eight children.

"At this point, as of less than half an hour ago, they have not found hide nor hair of them. But they will. We believe all is well," Spradlin said around 9 p.m. Alaska time.

But if the worst happened, he said, "they love God and they are in heaven if they didn't make it."

Late Sunday night, Spradlin e-mailed an "urgent prayer request" imploring others to pray for all four to "be miraculously found alive."

"Pray they'll quickly be found somewhere between Swikshak Lagoon in Katmai National Park and their destination King Salmon, Alaska," he wrote.

'A LOT OF COUNTRY'

The contracted plane picked up the Park Service crew of three around 1:45 p.m. Saturday. A second Branch River plane, which picked up two other Park Service employees, left about 15 minutes later. The second plane made it to King Salmon in about an hour but the first plane never arrived. The weather was deteriorating and the plane that made it through had to fly about 500 feet above ground level along a river drainage, according to the Park Service.

"The pilot was very familiar with the area and had flown the route many times," Moore said.

The search covers a wide and rugged area between King Salmon and the park's Pacific coast. Searchers were concentrating on river valleys that drain into Kamishak Bay on the park's northern boundary, according to the Park Service, which is coordinating the effort.

"There's a lot of country out there," Quinley said.

With low clouds, the pilot of the missing plane likely would have headed north up the Katmai coast around Cape Douglas, cut in along a river drainage such as the McNeil River area, then headed toward Kulik Lake west to King Salmon. That route avoids the high mountains and is the way the other pilot made it through, reportedly along the Little Kamishak drainage, Moore said.

The pilot of the second plane didn't see anything amiss.

"It's hard to know if they actually ended up flying the same (river) drainage," Moore said. "Fifteen minutes of flight time might end up opening up a drainage that was closed before."

Poor visibility is hampering the search, which was going to wrap up for the night around 10:30 p.m., rescuers said.

Searchers haven't picked up a signal from the plane's emergency locator transmitter or any radio communications.

Moore said there's a chance the plane could have landed and the group could be holed up in a cove waiting for the weather to improve. Any signals from the plane's radio may be weak or blocked by mountains, the superintendent said.

The missing plane is maroon with white stripes. Its tail number is N9313Z. Pilots in the area are urged to monitor frequency 121.5 and notify Katmai National Park at 907-246-3305 if they have any information.

The park service asks that private planes don't try to search on their own unless asked to do so, to keep the area clear.

Two helicopters from Egli Air Haul in King Salmon are helping in the search, and the Park Service said local businesses and float plane operators have been offering services and personnel.

A SUMMER OF CRASHES

The search was initiated Saturday afternoon through the Air National Guard's Rescue Coordination Center in Anchorage and continued until about 11 p.m. that night. Air crews started again at first light on Sunday.

The U.S. Coast Guard released a video of the search as seen from one of its HC-130s early Sunday. The back doors were open and two crew members, hooked to the plane, can be seen perched in the back looking over the marshy, lake-dotted landscape. The cloud ceiling was 500 to 1,000 feet and visibility on the ground was 10 miles but less than that in the rain, one of the crew members said.

"Guys, go ahead and be looking up the sides of the hills," an officer advises. "'Cuz if this guy got punched into some weather, he might have tried to climb out."

Alaska is reeling from a series of high profile plane crashes this summer starting with the June 1 crash of a Cessna 206 that slammed into a Fairview building and burst into flames, killing a 4-year-old. On July 28, a C-17 crashed on Elmendorf Air Force Base, killing the four crew members, who had been practicing for an air show. Days later, a crash in Denali National Park killed three. Then, on Aug. 9, a de Havilland Otter owned by GCI ran into a mountainside, killing former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens and four others.

"It's hard, especially living out here in the Bush. Planes are to us what cars are to people in the Lower 48. We rely on them heavily, for coming and going. They are just part of the way we do business and the way we live our lives," Moore said. "But the weather turns quickly and it's dangerous.

"Sometimes we don't think about the dangers."

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