Search suspended in Idaho backcountry for single-engine plane, passengers

BOISE, Idaho – Authorities have finished their second day of searching for a small plane and five passengers that disappeared two days ago in the mountains of central Idaho.

Crews on the ground along with National Guard helicopters and airplanes have been scanning the remote backcountry for a Beech Bonanza piloted by Dale Smith, a 51-year-old software executive from San Jose, Calif.

Smith took off Sunday from Baker City, Ore., where his family had been spending the holiday, en route to Butte, Mont. But while flying over Idaho’s vast wilderness, Smith reported engine trouble and asked air traffic controllers for co-ordinates to a backcountry landing strip near the tiny town of Yellow Pine, about 150 miles northeast of Boise and along the border of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. Controllers then lost radio and radar communication with the plane.

The search Tuesday focused on an area south of the Johnson Creek airstrip after authorities received a faint signal from the plane’s emergency beacon.

Authorities identified the others on board as Smith’s son Daniel Smith and his wife, Sheree, along with Dale Smith’s daughter, Amber Smith and her fiance Jonathon Norton.

State, local and federal officials, along with volunteers from the family, intend to resume the search Wednesday and look for ways to overcome the communication challenges posed by the area’s remote and rugged terrain. Temperatures for Yellow Pine are expected to dip below zero Tuesday night.

Smith, an executive and co-founder of San Jose-based data storage company SerialTek, is described as an experienced pilot. He obtained his pilot’s license in 2005 and had a second-class medical certification, allowing him to operate commercial aircraft, according to Federal Aviation Administration records.

“He’s flown all over Canada, the U.S. and Mexico,” said Rand Kriech, who co-founded SerialTek with Smith in 2007. “He’s flown all over, taking doctors and dentists down to Mexico to help the underprivileged. He’s a very giving man … from a very giving family.”

The search began Monday and centred on a mountain ridge near the remote landing strip but heavy snow, winds and clouds hampered efforts. Authorities targeted the location after pinging cellphones of Smith and others on board the plane.

The focus shifted slightly Tuesday finally detecting a faint signal from the plane’s built-in locator transmitter. Better weather allowed crews to begin searching by air.

Kriech said Smith was flying his son and daughter-in-law back to their home in Butte, then planned to head south to Rexburg, Idaho, where Smith’s daughter and fiance live.

“We’re all just waiting and hoping here,” Kriech said.

Officials said three more airplanes from the Idaho Civil Air Patrol were expected to assist in the search Wednesday.