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Winds Hamper Search for Fullerton-Bound Aircraft

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hampered by strong, erratic winds, an air search for five people aboard a missing plane bound for Orange County began late Monday and ended without success for a fourth consecutive day.

Fourteen single- and twin-engine Civil Air Patrol aircraft searched for the missing Cessna until about 4:30 p.m. along a 250-mile route between Bullhead City, Ariz., and Fullerton, where pilot Richard Niemela, 27, of La Mirada was expected to land with four passengers late Thursday afternoon.

Authorities began searching from an airport near Apple Valley, a small town about 25 miles north of San Bernardino, trying to avoid strong winds that hampered flights from Palm Springs. But the weather “is still giving us a problem there,” said Lt. Col. Edward Crankshaw, a spokesman for the Civil Air Patrol, an auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force composed of volunteers trained for emergency rescue missions.

Crankshaw said “vicious winds” of up to 25 m.p.h. buffeted search planes, making takeoffs and landings dangerous.

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Crankshaw said searchers “tried to second-guess” Niemela by flying over an almost direct route between Bullhead City and Fullerton. Members of Niemela’s family said he traveled an almost straight route on his many flights between the two cities, Crankshaw said.

The search is scheduled to resume today and will continue indefinitely, he added.

The number of search planes fell off Monday compared to the weekend because most of the pilots had to return to their regular jobs, Crankshaw said. At the height of the search, more than 70 aircraft were involved.

The passengers aboard the plane were identified as Kathy Bird, 33, and her husband, Jeff Bird, 32, of Fullerton; Jeff’s brother, Bradley Bird, 33, of Placentia and Natalie Erickson, 19, of Placentia.

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The Federal Aviation Administration said Niemela was flying visually and did not file a flight plan before leaving Arizona. Flight officials believe Niemela took off just as a major storm struck with snow, wind and sleet.


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