Five years later, searchers still hope to find missing plane north of Duluth
Michael Arthur Bratlie was a seasoned pilot with thousands of hours of flying time when he left for a round-trip sightseeing flight from St. Paul to Duluth to test a new engine on June 8, 2012.
No trace of Bratlie, a retired U.S. Navy and Northwest Airlines pilot from Lakeville, Minn., or his Piper PA-31 Navajo twin-engine plane has been found since last seen on radar just northeast of Silver Bay that day.
Five years later, searchers remain frustrated with not knowing what happened to Bratlie. But, given the wilderness of the Northland, they still hope the plane will be found.
"It's just unanswered questions. We're open to anything anyone can bring forward to us to look at. ... We would love nothing more than to be able to solve it and figure out what happened," Lake County Sheriff Carey Johnson said.
Agencies still periodically search the North Shore and Lake Superior and follow up on tips that come in. Johnson asked that people report things they see in the woods — even objects they think are trash could be something from the plane — and the Sheriff's Office will check it out. The Sheriff's Office also is open to ideas about new technology that could be used to conduct a better search.
After a tip last fall, searchers checked a location on Lake Superior near the plane's last known location where anglers reported something unusual. The Sheriff's Office is planning to go out again to double-check, Johnson said.
"Anytime we get any type of report, we follow up on it. I know that St. Louis County does the same and Cook County does the same," Johnson said. "It's frustrating because we just don't know if it went down in Lake Superior or if it went inland. It's frustrating because it's always nice to put 'this is what happened' for not only the searchers, but also for the family. The most important thing is for the family."
Bratlie's wife Diana Bratlie said, "I'm just grateful that they're still looking and, of course, I haven't given up hope."
Maj. Charles Schumacher of the Civil Air Patrol's Minnesota Wing said the 2012 search was "one of the most thorough searches" he has been involved in during his 25 years with the Civil Air Patrol. Air and ground teams searched for 13 days following Bratlie's disappearance, followed by another search that fall when all the leaves were off the trees.
The Civil Air Patrol has searched a few times more since then, too.
The National Transportation Safety Board's final report, released in 2016, noted that Bratlie's flight lasted about four hours and followed the western shoreline of Lake Superior. There were no distress calls from Bratlie, nor did any beacon transmit the plane's location. There was no evidence that Bratlie's plane landed at any of the three Twin Ports airports.
Schumacher said he keeps hoping that the plane will be found; he knows of other missing planes discovered years later because hunters found those planes' parts deep in the woods.
"You don't forget about it and you're always wondering. ... There's a lot of wilderness up north," Schumacher said.
Johnson pointed out that Bratlie isn't the only person missing in Lake County. Nathan Williams, a 21-year-old University of Minnesota Morris student, was reported missing in 2004 in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Charles Johnson, a 51-year-old Silver Bay resident, was reported missing in 2002 and was presumed to have drowned in Greenwood Lake, but a body was never recovered.
"You just feel like one of these days, maybe someone will stumble upon something that we can actually have an answer to what happened," Johnson said.
Other missing planes
The 1998 search for a Cessna 185 float plane that vanished on a flight from Duluth to Green Bay, Wis., illustrates how difficult searching for a small plane missing in the Northland can be. The plane, with two people aboard, vanished on Aug. 4 over heavy forests in the Phillips, Wis., area. More than 300 air-patrol volunteers from five states searched until Aug. 15, hampered by the lack of an EBT signal. OnAug. 26, a volunteer pilot and his friend spotted the plane's wreckage just about five miles from search headquarters. The plane was spotted in a swampy area where it apparently had skidded into nearby woods.
Sometimes, official searchers never find missing aircraft.
In September 1994, two hunters found a helicopter that had crashed the preceding March in forest and swamp land near Wisconsin Rapids, about 90 miles south of Phillips.
In November 1990, a deer hunter found the remains of a float plane and its four occupants that had crashed in a spruce swamp 10 miles north of Island Lake nine years before. The CAP logged 10,000 hours before calling off the 1981 search.
And on Sept. 24, 1969, an Air Force jet trainer crashed in Lake Superior near Duluth during training operations. The plane and its pilot were never found.