Pilot, plane still missing north of Duluth

A Lakeville, Minn., man and his twin engine airplane were still missing Monday night with few clues on where he may have gone or why. Michael Arthur Bratlie, 67, a seasoned pilot with thousands of hours of U.S. Navy and airline flight time, went ...

Capt. Bob Swearengin with the Civil Air Patrol
Capt. Bob Swearengin with the Civil Air Patrol steps out of a plane at the Duluth International Airport on Monday after completing a three-hour mission helping to search for a missing plane. (Bob King /

A Lakeville, Minn., man and his twin engine airplane were still missing Monday night with few clues on where he may have gone or why.

Michael Arthur Bratlie, 67, a seasoned pilot with thousands of hours of U.S. Navy and airline flight time, went missing Friday night apparently somewhere north of Duluth. Air, ground and water searches over the weekend and again Monday turned up no sign of the twin engine Piper PA-31 Navajo.

"There's no good news tonight," said Capt. George Supan of the Civil Air Patrol as the last search planes were landing as night fell.

Maj. Paul Pieper of the Civil Air Patrol in Minnesota said the last radar and cell phone contact with Bratlie placed the aircraft just northeast of Silver Bay, probably over Lake Superior but not far off shore.

But it's possible Bratlie's plane continued for some time after that last known contact. That's why the public across Northeastern Minnesota's Arrowhead region -- Cook, Lake and eastern St. Louis County -- is asked to report anything they may have seen or heard Friday night that might have been a plane in distress, Pieper said.


"We are hoping someone will come forward and give us something to work on," Pieper said. "People should call their local sheriff to report anything that might help us."

Bratlie took off from the airport in South St. Paul on Friday for a round-trip flight to the Duluth area, described as possibly a sightseeing trip to "season" or break-in a new engine in his airplane. Pieper said there is no evidence that Bratlie's plane ever landed at any of the three airports in the Duluth area -- Duluth International, Sky Harbor on Park Point or Bong in Superior. He was reported overdue and missing about 11 p.m. Friday and planes were in the air searching within two hours, Pieper noted.

There were no radio calls of distress from Bratlie, who was alone in the plane. A distress beacon designed to transmit on any impact has not been heard from, Supan said, making the disappearance even more mysterious.

"They don't always go off, and they can be damaged or burned, but we should have been able to hear it from our planes," he said.

The search is focused on a broad area of the North Shore, mostly in Cook County, including heavily forested areas on land and across Lake Superior, with seven Civil Air Patrol aircraft searching grids Monday and hoping to find a clue. The planes had to be grounded because of high winds for a time Monday but went back up in the evening to no avail. Two ground crews are ready to respond if anything is seen from the air. The search effort is based at the Civil Air Patrol hangar at Duluth International Airport.

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fire-spotting planes have been asked to look for the missing plane and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Border Patrol also has been notified, as have local sheriff's offices. The U.S. Coast Guard also used boats and aircraft in the search, Pieper said.

"It's all we have to go on and so that's where we are building the search from," Pieper said of the last cell-phone hit, noting the plane may have had a range of nearly 1,000 miles if full on takeoff. Crews hoped to use an advanced imaging system later this week that detects color under trees better than human eyes, Pieper said.

Pieper said officials were working on the ground back in the Twin Cities to make sure Bratlie didn't have some other plan unknown to his family. But he has not been reported at any other airport, he noted, and "we're sure his plan was to fly around and return to South St. Paul. That was his intention," Pieper said.


The all-volunteer Civil Air Patrol was formed in 1941 and is affiliated with the U.S. Air Force. It is assigned the task of searching for civil aviation aircraft that go missing in the U.S.

"Most of the searches we do are very short. We haven't had one of these last several days like this for a few years now," said Pieper, who is not a pilot but a customer service representative for a publisher when he isn't helping to find downed aircraft. "But this is what we train for. We have a family out there hurting because this man didn't come home and we are going to find him for them."

The News Tribune has learned that Bratlie's father, Arthur E. Bratlie, died in a plane crash in Alaska in 1968.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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