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Air ambulance operator says floating debris is from missing plane; Coast Guard suspends search

Kake, a former logging and fishing boomtown on Kupreanof Island in Southeast Alaska. (Kim Murphy/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

Aircraft debris found in the waters off a Southeast Alaska village belongs to a missing medevac plane carrying three crew members, the air ambulance company confirmed Thursday.

The Beechcraft King Air 200 turboprop, operated by Guardian Flight, took off from Anchorage on Tuesday for a flight of about 600 miles to the village of Kake but never arrived.

The U.S. Coast Guard said late Thursday that it had suspended the search.

“Aircraft debris was located in the search area, Wednesday, and appears to be from the Guardian flight,” the Coast Guard said in a statement Thursday evening. “Despite the search efforts, no other debris was located Wednesday night or Thursday.”

Guardian identified the three Juneau-based crew members aboard as 63-year-old pilot Patrick Coyle, 30-year-old flight nurse Stacie Rae Morse, and 43-year-old flight paramedic Margaret Langston. Coyle was a seasoned pilot with thousands of hours of flying time. Morse was pregnant and due in April. Langston was recently married.

Nearly two days after the search for their plane began, Guardian confirmed that wreckage found in the area of the plane’s last known location belonged to the missing aircraft.

“...The debris found by searchers unfortunately gives us a very strong indication that it was our airplane,” Guardians corporate vice president of operations Randy Lyman said in a statement Thursday afternoon. “While search and rescue efforts are continuing in an attempt to find survivors, we are resigned to accept that the aircraft was ours.”

Airborne searchers from Wrangell on Wednesday afternoon spotted part of an aircraft wing in the water about 22 miles west of Kake, near the south tip of Admiralty Island in Chatham Strait, according to the Coast Guard. Two U.S. Coast Guard cutters worked through the night into Thursday morning while other agencies and volunteers who joined the search Wednesday overnighted in the Tlingit village of just under 600 people on Kupreanof Island about 50 miles east of Sitka.

More aircraft debris turned up in that search, a Coast Guard spokeswoman said.

Kake Locator

A Guardian spokesman declined to answer questions about the crew’s schedule and itinerary before and during Tuesday’s flight, citing a pending National Transportation Safety Board investigation.

Coyle has worked for Guardian for nearly four years and had 16,000 flight hours with a federal Airline Transport Pilot certificate; 9,000 hours of multi-engine experience; and 6,000 hours in turboprops when he was hired in 2015, according to Jim Gregory, a Kansas-based consultant handling media questions for Guardian. He added nearly 1,600 hours once hired.

Morse has worked for Guardian for three years. A friend said she was about 27 weeks pregnant.

She is also a nurse in the emergency department at Juneau’s Bartlett Regional Hospital, where she’s worked since March 2016, hospital spokeswoman Katie Bausler said. Her disappearance has hit especially hard in the ED, where colleagues knew Morse both as a medevac nurse and a coworker.

“She’s very highly regarded,” Bausler said.

Langston has also worked for Guardian for three years. A friend described her as outgoing and happy to be in Alaska, where she could fish and spend time outside.

Guardian has suspended operations in Alaska, where the company transports more than 2,500 patients a year, Gregory said. The company is working to route calls to other providers -- LifeMed Alaska and Airlift Northwest -- “in order to do everything possible to meet patient needs,” Gregory wrote in an email.

The Guardian Flight hangar in Juneau on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. (James Brooks / ADN)

Guardian is one of a half-dozen companies providing air ambulance services around Alaska, where it can cost tens of thousands of dollars for medical evacuations from remote spots hundreds of miles from the closest hospital.

Guardian Flight operates about 85 fixed- and rotor-wing aircraft dedicated to air medical flights in the upper Midwest, Mountain West, Southwest, Alaska and Hawaii, according to the company.

Founded by Frontier Flying Service in 1997, Guardian became a Fairbanks-based stand-alone private critical-care ambulance service to the Interior by 2000.

Guardian in 2008 was purchased by Utah-based Air Medical Resource Group, now part of the country’s largest provider of emergency air-medical services. By 2011, Guardian’s Alaska range extended to much of the state with bases in Sitka, Ketchikan, Dutch Harbor, Kotzebue, Juneau and Anchorage, home to Guardian’s statewide corporate and maintenance hub.

The Coast Guard said ending the search was difficult.

“Suspending a search for any reason is one of the most difficult decisions we have to make,” the statement quoted Capt. Stephen White, Sector Juneau commander as saying. “This was an extensive search effort in some very challenging conditions. We are thankful for the assistance from the search and rescue teams, Alaska State Troopers, Army Air National Guard and good Samaritans.”

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