‘Major’ search still underway for missing Californians

More than 80 people continue to search for a California couple missing for nine days. The effort has now been deemed a "major" search -- the first in Western Canada in almost two years.

More than 80 people continue to search for a California couple missing for nine days.

The effort has now been deemed a “major” search—the first in Western Canada in almost two years.

Gary Petigler, 70, and wife Ingrid, 68, took off in their single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza from Wolf Lake, Alaska on the evening of June 20.

One hour after the pair failed to arrive on schedule in Whitehorse, search efforts commenced on both sides of the border.

“The whole area has already been looked at at least once—a lot of it twice, some of it three times,” said Master Cpt. Craig Ellestad, of the search team.

Two twin-engine Buffalo, from Comox, BC, are conducting the search along with a smaller Yellowknife-based Twin Otter.

Five civilian aircraft are also combing the skies—each packed with a four-person crew of specially-trained civilian search-and-rescue specialists.

A separate US operation continues to search the Alaskan side.

“It’s incredibly rugged terrain, there’s mountains in some of the search areas up to 17,000 feet,” said Ellestad.

The BC-based crews know rugged terrain.

“It’s easier for us to fly here than it is to fly in BC; the mountains are shorter and the vegetation is sparse,” said Buffalo pilot Cpt. Jim Juric.

On board each Buffalo are two orange-suited search-and-rescue technicians.

Should a crash site be spotted, the two technicians would immediately parachute to the ground and administer emergency care.

A helicopter would then be radioed for pickup.

With the search extending into day nine, technicians are prepared to address the effects of the open wilderness.

“It’s definitely fair to say that at this point there’s going to be a lot more exposure at play,” said search-and-rescue technician Master Cpl. Mark Salesse.

On board the missing aircraft was a full complement of camping and survival gear.

If the couple survived the crash, there’s a good chance they will survive exposure in the wilds, said defence spokesperson Lt. Marguerite Dodds-Lepinski.

Family members of the missing have a direct line to Ellestad in order to receive repeated updates on the search.

Three military and two civilian aircraft formed the initial Canadian search—but were sent home two days later when information from the couple’s cellphone provider showed that they were roaming in US territory.

When officials looked harder at the data, “they felt it had left them with enough ambiguity that it was prudent to open up (the search area) again,” said Ellestad.

By Thursday, Air Force officials were back in Whitehorse, assembling an ad-hock headquarters in the wildland fire management hangar at the Whitehorse Airport.

Civilians and green-suited air force personnel milled around a large room acting as the central command centre.

Handwritten signs reading “MAP ROOM” and “SEARCH MASTER” were taped over the doors of adjoining rooms.

In the hangar, the ground crew played solitaire and polished their boots.

They had just finished a once-over of a recently arrived Buffalo—and were awaiting the arrival of the next.

The 60s-era Buffalo has been phased out in Eastern Canada, but the plane’s small size and agility keep it in use among the rugged terrain of Canada’s West Coast.

“It’s virtually ideal for the region it’s in,” said Ellestad.

The last “major search” took place in October, 2007, when 61 year-old pilot Ron Boychuk went missing after taking off from Revelstoke, BC, in his single-engine Cessna.

Three military planes, three helicopters, six civilian aircraft, and a 47-person ground-search crew were mobilized for the 12-day search.

After covering more than 20,000 square kilometres, the search was called off.

Boychuk remains missing.

After an on-base lunch on Saturday afternoon, the Buffalo’s eight-person crew once again piled aboard for the day’s second sweep.

Each day, aircraft remain in the skies for up to 12 hours.

The two pilots, the flight engineer and the navigator boarded first, wearing one-piece Canadian Forces flight suits.

Then came the orange-clad search-and-rescue technicians.

Finally, two backpack-toting civilian spotters took their place at the aircraft’s two bubble windows.

The Buffalo can normally take off in the length of a soccer field, but laden with 4,500 kilograms of fuel, the aircraft took its time lumbering up the Whitehorse Airport runway.

Airborne, the aircraft slowly faded into the distance—a bright yellow spot among the menacing storm clouds on the horizon.

“It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack,” said ground crew member Master Cpl. Darryl Seymour.

If members of the public have any information about the missing plane, please call the tip line at (867) 456-3861.

Contact Tristin Hopper at tristinh@yukon-news.com