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Published: 11/16/2005

Search can't find airplane sending distress signals

BY JANE SCHMUCKER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

WAUSEON - They've searched and searched and searched - some for more than 24 hours.

In the air, aboard all-terrain vehicles, and on foot, they've looked despite the rain and the wind and the mud.

But as of last night they hadn't found the small "Cessna-type" plane that might have crashed - if there even was a crash.

Still, the distress signals emanating from an area possibly in western Fulton County continued to be heard at airports as far away as Chicago and Langley, Va.

"We're not giving up on it at this point," said Sgt. Frank Day of the Ohio Highway Patrol's Toledo post. "Every lead that we get, we're going out and looking again."

The highway patrol and the Ohio Civil Air Patrol were leading the search for the plane that disappeared from radar at Toledo Express Airport late Monday afternoon.

The aircraft's destination and the identity of its occupant or occupants weren't known.

Its last reported position was thought to be about 30 miles west of the airport, perhaps north of Archbold.

Troopers at the highway patrol's Defiance post received a call at 5:54 p.m. Monday from FAA controllers at Toledo Express reporting the possibility of downed plane in their area.

According to a dispatcher at the patrol's Toledo post, the FAA said a blip, representing an aircraft, had disappeared from its radar scopes without explanation.

Two medical helicopters each spent several hours searching the area Monday.

And at least 30 people - sheriff's deputies from Fulton and Williams counties; Archbold and Montpelier firefighters, and some volunteers - worked the ground Monday and yesterday.

Signals early on seemed to point to a wooded area near Williams County Roads M and 15. But yesterday's changing atmospheric conditions made it difficult to pinpoint the signal's location.

Later the search moved miles away to Fulton County Roads H and 22 and then near Roads H and 14. Emergency workers heard of sightings of a low-flying aircraft Monday near Roads H and 22.

Late last night the Gorham-Fayette and Morenci fire departments were canvassing the area east of Fayette - north of U.S. 20 near Fulton County Road 21 - on a tip from hunters, who told emergency officials something that "sounded like a bulldozer went through the woods" about the time the plane went missing Monday, Gorham-Fayette Fire Chief Tom Franks said.

"We got guys out walking to make sure," Chief Franks said last night while trudging through the woods in heavy rain. "It's nasty right now. We've got real high winds and rain. The guys are soaked, even with fire gear on. The rain is coming almost sideways."

Chief Franks said he and a group of about 20 men and women on foot and seven on ATVs from the fire departments and area land owners planned to look as long as they could hold up in the severe weather.

"Whether it's a goose chase or not, at least we can say we tried," he said.

Those searching had canvassed at least three miles from 5 to 8 p.m. as they walked in a straight line about 10 to 20 feet apart, but they hadn't found anything suspicious.

Chief Franks said the combination of the weather and unpredictable woods, with areas that had just been logged, made the search difficult.

"It looks like Hiroshima," he said. "We have logs everywhere. If a plane went down there, it'd be a good place to hide."

He said he hoped the weather would improve today so they possibly could get air crews to help search.

Meanwhile, Sergeant Day speculated that perhaps the plane that disappeared from radar simply started flying at an altitude too low to be detected or had landed safely.

But if so, he wondered why distress signals from the plane were still being picked up by the Coast Guard and airports in Fort Wayne and Chicago as well as at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.

It's also possible a pilot unknowingly activated a plane-in-distress signal, which was still going off long after the aircraft was put away. But rescue workers checked planes in local hangars. The device that emits the signal works for up to four days, he said.

"We're kind of dumbfounded," Sergeant Day said from the search command center at Fulton County Airport, north of Wauseon.

Blade staff writer Meghan Gilbert contributed to this report. Information from the Associated Press also was used in this report.

Contact Jane Schmucker at:

jschmucker@theblade.com

or 419-337-7780.



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