The bodies of all three members of a volunteer Civil Air Patrol search team were found Sunday in the wreckage of their light plane in the San Gabriel Mountains, a tragic end to an attempt to find a plane and pilot missing for two weeks.
The commander of the patrol’s California wing, Col. Angelo A. Porco, said it was the first time in 12 years that one of its search missions ended in a fatal crash. Among the victims was pilot Robert A. Leman, 48, of San Jose, a frequent leader not only of search missions but of emergency flights to deliver organs for transplants.
“Our people yesterday had a job to do,” said Porco. “Their loss hurts us as a family.”
The colonel said that after searching for little more than an hour, the plane plowed into a saddle at the 7,700-foot level between Mt. Baldy and Pine Mountain at 11:36 a.m. Saturday. That was the time, Porco said, that the Cessna 182’s emergency locater transmitter began sending out a signal--without any prior warning of trouble from the craft.
In the rugged terrain, and amid occasional wind and rain storms, it took other air units and ground rescue teams all day and night to designate a half-mile search area, he said. Then, around 9 a.m. Sunday, a Los Angeles County sheriff’s rescue helicopter spotted the wreckage.
Within 25 minutes, the sheriff’s Air 5 rescue helicopter arrived on the scene, and paramedics using ropes climbed down to the plane. All the victims were still in the aircraft.
A CAP deputy in San Jose identified the dead as Leman, a computer software engineer and commercial pilot who had been a Patrol volunteer for 12 years; Brian Perkin, 39, a products planner for Novell Inc. and an eight-year Patrol volunteer from Santa Clara; and James C. Spadafore, 62, a two-year Patrol volunteer from San Jose, for whom no other occupation was given. Leman and Spadafore were both married with children.
CAP spokesman Col. Sydney Wolfe said that for the last 10 years Leman had been a frequent pilot for the Patrol’s Live Organ Transportation System, under which organs used in transplant operations are flown throughout California in emergencies.
“Since the inception of the program in September, 1983, we’ve flown 388 missions, and Capt. Leman flew 40 of those, more than anyone else in the California wing,” Wolfe said. “On those 40 missions, he helped 390 people and helped save 14 lives.”
Wolfe added, “All of these were very dedicated men. The squadron and their families have suffered a terrible loss. They have created quite a void in leaving us.”
During Saturday’s search, Leman, Perkin and Spadafore were operating out of Cable Airport in Upland. The airport has served as the headquarters for the search for Terry Corkhill, 51, of Pomona, who has been missing since flying a light plane into the San Gabriels on Dec. 31.
Porco said there appeared to be a fairly precise idea where Corkhill may have crashed in the San Gabriels because he was seen flying low north of Mt. Baldy by two sheriff’s deputies the afternoon he disappeared.
But the storms that have prevailed since New Year’s kept searchers out of the skies for days. It was only on Friday and Saturday that weather conditions allowed a renewal of the search into four precise quadrants where Corkhill’s plane was believed to be, with a separate CAP plane assigned to each quadrant, the commander said.
As usual, crews of Patrol volunteers--whose ranks number 4,000 in California--came from throughout the state to help. Leman, Perkin and Spadafore left San Jose at 6:15 a.m. Saturday and arrived at Cable Airport about 8:45 a.m. The trio took off again to join the search at 10:30 a.m., Porco said, and reported normal operations as late as 11:13 a.m. But after that, nothing was heard from them.
When the locater transmitter began sending its signal, rescue units sent seven aircraft and 15 ground rescue teams into the area to look for the newly missing plane, he said.
Though the sheriff’s team found the bodies, stormy conditions descended once again Sunday afternoon and rescuers had to put off their retrieval.
In addition, Corkhill and his plane had still not been located.
Emotions were running high in the CAP Quonset huts at Cable Airport on Sunday, as the wing commander held a news conference to discuss the latest crash. At one point, he called on a Patrol chaplain, Les Wheeler, to say a few words.
“They have paid the full measure,” Wheeler said of the victims. “Greater love have no men than these, who lay down their lives for another.”
Porco said the CAP, the U.S. Air Force and the National Transportation Safety Board will investigate the crash.
The Civil Air Patrol in California flies 27 of its own aircraft as well as several hundred that are privately owned. The Air Force pays for many of the expenses, but the volunteers receive no compensation for their efforts.