By Chris Collins
Mel Cross, a Baker City pilot who grew up in Idaho, has spent many hours flying over the rugged mountains where a single-engine plane that left Baker City Sunday has gone missing en route to Butte, Mont.
Cross is familiar with the Johnson Creek Airstrip, which is about 50 miles northeast of Cascade, Idaho, where he was raised.
That's the unpaved airstrip where 51-year-old Dale Smith had hoped to land when his six-seat BE36 Beech Bonanza airplane began experiencing engine trouble Sunday afternoon.
"That's rugged country - a lot of huge country," Cross said.
Cross, 74, has accumulated 2,400 hours in the air over the past 38 years.
And many of those hours have been spent flying between Baker City and the state where he spent his younger years, including trips to Sun Valley, Stanley and Smiley Creek, Idaho. He and his wife, Marlene, 72, also fly to Salem for visits with their grandkids. They average about 100 hours a year in the air, Cross said.
"I've been in all those places," Cross said of the central Idaho region, and he knows the challenges faced by those searching for Smith's missing plane.
"It's like looking for a needle in a haystack," Cross said.
Smith flew out of the Baker City Airport after 11 a.m. Sunday bound for Butte, Mont. His plane lost radar and cell tower contact shortly after 1 p.m. MST, according to the Valley County, Idaho, Sheriff's Department.
Others on board were Dale Smith's children, Daniel and Amber; Daniel's wife, Sheree; and Amber's fiancandeacute;, Jonathan Norton. The engaged couple are students at Brigham Young University-Idaho at Rexburg and are planning to be married Jan. 4. Their wedding announcements arrived in the mail this week, according to The Associated Press (AP).
Those aboard the plane spent Thanksgiving with Dale Smith's father and stepmother, Steve and Terri Smith, who live near Baker City, said Elizabeth Smithson of Baker City, a family friend.
At one point during the Sunday flight, Dale Smith was seeking coordinates for the Johnson Creek Airstrip, a Valley County Sheriff's Department press release stated. The search for the missing plane has centered in that area this week.
Cross is puzzled by Smith'srequest for help to find the remote airstrip. He says his Cessna 182 is equipped with a global positioning unit that allows him to search for the 10 nearest airports within a 20-mile radius.
"He should have been able to dial it in himself," Cross said, wondering what might have prevented Smith from doing that.
Cross' airplane has four seats and can carry a load of 1,230 pounds, including the fuel.
"He's got a pretty good size airplane with quite a bit of horsepower," Cross said of Smith's Beech Bonanza. Still, Cross added, with five people aboard, "he had plenty of load for what he was trying to accomplish."
Temperatures this week have dropped below zero in the mountainous region of Central Idaho.
"I pray for them," Cross said. "I hope they had a way to build a fire at least and that if they survived they at least had some heat."
Mel and Marlene Cross spent a winter night out in the Eagle Caps about 20 years ago when the two became separated while snowmobiling, so Mel knows firsthand about the harsh conditions the family could be facing.
He hopes, as most pilots do, that Smith was carrying survival gear.
Searchers entered their fifth day of looking for the missing plane today. Ground crews rested overnight near the community of Yellow Pine, Idaho, three miles north of the airstrip where Smith had hoped to land, and about 150 miles northeast of Boise.
Heavy snow, strong winds and low visibility hampered Monday's aerial search, but on Tuesday, a faint emergency locator transmitter signal was picked up one mile south of the airstrip. The signal could not be verified by other aircraft searching the same area Wednesday, however, the sheriff's department reported.
There are five airplanes helping with the search today, including two from the Civil Air Patrol and three from the Idaho Department of Transportation.
The Civil Air Patrol is using forward looking infrared radar brought in from Wyoming, the sheriff's office said. The equipment detects ground temperatures and can distinguish such things as sunlight reflecting off metal.
Ground searchers include a team from the Valley County Sheriff's Office, Valley County Search and Rescue, Idaho Fish and Game, the U.S. Forest Service, family members and the Idaho Transportation Department.
"Today we have clear weather and are continuing the search using every available asset," said Incident Commander Lt. Dan Smith of the Valley County Sheriff's Office."The terrain of the search area continues to be a challenge, and our thoughts are with the family of those believed to be on the plane."
Because of the remote mountainous terrain,and the concern for the safety of the searchers, volunteers are asked not to join the effort, the sheriff's department lieutenant said.
The pilot is an executive and co-founder of the San Jose-based data storage company SerialTek, according to an AP report.
Smith has been a pilot for eight years and is described as "experienced" by his friends.
Rand Kriech, who co-founded SerialTek with Smith in 2007, told AP that Smith had intended to drop his son and daughter-in-law off at Butte, Mont., and then to head south to deliver his daughter and her fiancandeacute; to Rexburg.