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Witnesses report downed plane near Dubois

Dec 11, 2012 - By Katie Roenigk, Staff Writer

The Fremont County Sheriff's Office is investigating the possibility that an aircraft may have crashed south of Dubois on Sunday afternoon. Crews have been searching the area since Monday, though winter weather has hampered their efforts.

No aircraft have been listed as missing or overdue, but officials received a report at about 4:30 p.m. Sunday from Dubois resident Kathryn Matlack who said she saw the plane go down while she was at home on Watson Street.

"I was standing in my living room looking out the window, and I happened to glance west," Matlack said Tuesday. "I saw what looked like just a short jet trail, but it was fairly low and the skies were very clear and it looked like when it's kind of wide and getting ready to dissipate. But it didn't."

Her curiosity aroused, Matlack said she retrieved her binoculars to get a closer look.

"It was at an angle right above (Whiskey) Ridge," she said. "It was just at or kind of just past the west end of that ridge, and I saw it looked like a small plane that was just engulfed in smoke and vapor or something. ... Then it just went down behind the ridge."

She said the smoke or vapor was "streaming" off of the plane's engine and wings. Later, other witnesses including Matlack described seeing two plumes of dark smoke coming from the area.

"I was just standing there, still looking out the window," Matlack said. "I was just in shock. ... I kept thinking, 'God, don't let it be a plane.'"

Matlack said she was still scanning the horizon when her daughter came home about five minutes later. Though Matlack said she hesitated to call the police, her daughter had no qualms about alerting law enforcement.

"At first it's just hard to believe you saw something like that," Matlack said. "It's so dramatic, I thought everybody had to see that. ... But I worried about it all night long; I kept seeing it all night."

Search

Matlack, who said she doesn't like to fly, continued worrying Monday when search and rescue crews started looking for the potential aircraft in winter weather. County officials said the Federal Aviation Administration and Civil Air Patrol also have been notified of the potential incident.

"We will be working with the (CAP) in an attempt to search for any type of wreckage in the next couple of days," Fremont County Sheriff's Capt. Ryan Lee said in a Monday press release. "As soon as the weather gives us an opportunity CAP will be overflying the area and attempting to listen for an Emergency Locator Signal. We will also be mobilizing the Dubois search and rescue division."

A team was dispatched to high ground Monday morning in an attempt to locate a downed aircraft, but officials said the volunteers were unsuccessful because of blizzard conditions.

"They went back behind Whiskey Mountain and did some looking around, but they got shut down several times to where it was zero visibility and they couldn't move," Sheriff's Capt. David Good said Tuesday. "There have been a lot of high winds and little fronts blowing through."

Casper CAP units were unable to fly to Fremont County on Monday either, but Good said they were scheduled to arrive in Dubois by mid-morning Tuesday. Search and rescue crews also anticipated taking snow machines and local aircraft into the mountains Tuesday to continue searching, despite the fact that no planes have been reported missing or overdue.

"The report is concerning enough that we have to take a look regardless," Lee said. "We have been down that road before."

In December 2010 a crashed plane was located on top of Atlantic Peak near Christina Lake after an overflying aircraft received an ELS in the area. Fremont County crews found the aircraft on Dec. 24, 2010, three days after it departed from Texas; all three people aboard the plane were killed.

"That particular aircraft was never listed as overdue or missing," Lee said.

Good said it's not unusual for pilots to take small aircraft out without registering a flight plan.

"A lot of people don't," he said. "They decide they'll take their Cessna up with their buddy and fly over the Wind Rivers or Table Mountain."

The decision is risky, especially in Fremont County where three to five plane crashes are recorded each year.

"We are the highest plane crash county in the state," Good said. "For some reason the Winds are a little harder to get over. Plus we have the highest peak in the state, Gannett Peak. A lot of (the crashes) are associated with Gannett Peak."

He added that it is possible that the black smoke witnesses reported could have come from another source.

"Even in the middle of winter, snow machiners in the area could have a bonfire," he suggested. "But we don't want to take a chance on someone being stranded back there. ... Better safe than sorry."

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