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A St. Louis County Rescue Squad boat motors through the fog over Lake Superior at Brighton Beach in Duluth while searching for the wreckage of a small plane that apparently crashed into the lake about a mile off the beach Saturday morning, June 7, 2014. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Crews looking for missing plane find debris, body in Lake Superior off Duluth

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Authorities located debris and a body deep beneath the surface of Lake Superior on Saturday night, after an hours-long search for a small airplane that apparently went down in fog-shrouded Lake Superior offshore from Duluth’s Brighton Beach earlier in the day.

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The St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office reported that the pilot is believed to have been the only occupant of the plane; their identity was not released.

Search crews found debris, including a pilot’s log book and aviation fuel, on the lake’s surface Saturday afternoon about 1.2 miles from shore. Side-scan sonar later turned up signs of debris in 137 feet of water, and a remotely operated vehicle sent to investigate produced “very promising” results, Capt. Tom Crossmon of the St. Louis County Rescue Squad said late Saturday night. The Sheriff's Office reported that a body was located in the wreckage.

Authorities plan to send a diver to inspect the possible plane wreckage, Crossmon said, but going that deep underwater requires specialized training. Crossmon said officials have contacted a local professional diver who was at a job in North Dakota on Saturday; he will return to Duluth and dive on the debris on Monday.

No further searching is planned Sunday, Crossmon said, but authorities will continue to monitor the site.

The Federal Aviation Administration reported that the missing plane is a single-engine, four-seat, kit-built Lancair IV that was bound from Duluth to Goose Bay, Labrador, in far eastern Canada. The flight-tracking website flightaware.com reported it had traveled to Duluth from Bend, Ore., on Friday.

The plane is registered to A.O. Engineering of Wilmington, Del., according to FAA records. Further information on that company was not available late Saturday.

Lancair is based in Redmond, Ore., about 20 miles from Bend. Doug Meyer, director of sales and marketing for Lancair, said Saturday evening that the company is aware of the plane and the man who piloted it when it left Bend on Friday; Meyer said the man may have been headed to Germany but did not have further information on his identity.

That pilot had recently purchased the plane and sought training from a third-party vendor, Meyer said, but the vendor declined because of “deficiencies” with that particular plane; the vendor wanted them fixed before flying. Meyer said he did not have information on what those deficiencies may have been. He said the plane was not brought to Lancair for maintenance.

Lancair makes the kits and provides guidance to buyers, Meyer noted, but “ultimately, the builder is the manufacturer of the airplane.” Variations that can occur during assembly, as well as routine wear-and-tear that occurs over time, could cause deficiencies in a given kit-built aircraft.

The plane that went missing Saturday had had more than one owner, Meyer said; he was not certain when it was built but said it probably was at least 10 years old.

DISAPPEARED FROM RADAR

The plane was reported missing at about 11:30 a.m. by the control tower at the Duluth International Airport, the Duluth Fire Department said. The plane had taken off from Duluth, disappeared from radar and was believed to have crashed in Lake Superior, the Sheriff’s Office reported.

The U.S. Coast Guard said it received a report from the tower of “a single engine white and maroon airplane spiraling down with a loss of communications.”

Another caller reported possibly hearing a crash on Lake Superior, officials said.

Within minutes after the plane was reported missing, emergency vehicles from Duluth Fire and Police departments, the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office and other agencies lined an area from the tourist station on London Road into Brighton Beach.

Three St. Louis County boats, one from the Duluth Fire Department and a 45-foot U.S. Coast Guard response boat were involved in the search, said assistant Duluth Fire Chief Erik Simonson. A Coast Guard Dolphin helicopter from Traverse City, Mich., also took part.

Thick fog over the lake hampered the search.

“It was really hard for us because when we launch our boat we don’t have any radar capabilities,” Simonson said. “It’s really hard to tell what direction you’re going. Visibility was zero.”

One of the county boats identified a debris field about 12:15 p.m. Water in the area was about 140 feet deep with an estimated temperature of 40 degrees, Simonson said.

The Coast Guard said the pilot’s log book and aviation fuel were found in the debris field. It reported that the items were among the debris found in an area about 250 yards in length.

The St. Louis County Rescue Squad brought its side-scan sonar unit and remotely operated vehicle out onto the lake on Saturday evening. Crossmon reported at 8:45 p.m. that the sonar had turned up “some larger targets” underwater that the ROV would investigate. Crews remained out after dusk; as long as the weather cooperated, Crossmon said, “the dark isn’t going to stop us.”

FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro said investigators would be en route to Duluth late Saturday or on Sunday.

News Tribune reporter John Lundy contributed to this report.

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