The land search for a plane carrying two people that is believed to have crashed near or on Martha's Vineyard Tuesday night was suspended yesterday afternoon at 3 p.m., pending new information.
For two long days and a night, local firemen, police and volunteers combed the woods of the Island in search of the remains of a single-engine airplane that went missing in foul weather. As the Gazette went to press, there was still no trace of the plane.
Believed to be on board were Richard A. Colson, 43, of Edgartown, and his friend Robert B. Buchannan, 45, of Tisbury. Mr. Colson, an experienced pilot, is a respected Island contractor, owner of Vineyard Builders Association and a county airport commissioner; Mr. Buchannan is a cabinetmaker and carpenter.
The two were returning to the Island from a weekend pleasure trip to Florida in Mr. Colson's 1998 Mooney Ovation2, a plane he has owned for about a year. The last leg of their long flight back was from T.F. Green Airport in Providence, R.I., where they had stopped to refuel.
The U.S. Coast Guard called off its part of the search on Wednesday night at 8 p.m., having found no evidence of the plane over water. In its search the Coast Guard employed a 41-footer from Menemsha, a 47-footer from Woods Hole and the 140-foot Coast Guard cutter Morro Bay, out of New London.
After the crash, the Coast Guard had sent as many as three helicopters from their air station on Cape Cod . They dedicated one helicopter to look again yesterday, but it was principally on a training trip.
State environmental police Sgt. William L. Searle said yesterday his department had leads pointing both to the land and water, but none proved productive.
A pilot for Cape Air reported yesterday morning picking up a "ping" on his radio while flying to Martha's Vineyard Airport. The radio sound was thought to be some kind of emergency transmitter from a plane, possibly south of the Island, but this was not confirmed.
Sergeant Searle also said police had received more than one call from Islanders living near the state forest who claim to have heard a loud noise around the time that the crash may have occurred.
More than 100 police officers, firemen and members of the Dukes County Search and Rescue team were involved in the search effort, many on limited sleep. Thursday was the first sunny, rainless day in the search.
A state police helicopter from Plymouth flew over the Island yesterday afternoon.
"All the information we have now leads us to believe that the plane was piloted by Richard Colson and his passenger was Robert Buchanan, but we won't be absolutely sure until we find the plane," said Sgt. Robert Moore, who leads the state police barracks in Oak Bluffs.
At the time of the apparent crash Tuesday night, the Vineyard was experiencing a heavy rain shower that included lightning and thunder. Rain was falling at a rate of more than an inch an hour, limiting visibility, and the wind blew at speeds of up to 25 miles per hour.
Mr. Colson's plane was making its second attempt to land at the airport when it disappeared from Cape approach radar at approximately 7:59 p.m. The Vineyard air control tower had closed routinely at 5 p.m. and all approaches and departures were handled by the air radar system at Otis Air National Guard Base.
Martha's Vineyard Airport manager Bill Weibrecht was contacted at his Edgartown home after the plane disappeared and he notified his personnel. The Dukes County communications center put the word out across the Island.
Karen Ogden, the director of Dukes County Search and Rescue, said she was at home when a member of the search and rescue team called. "He said, ‘Turn on the scanner, there's a plane
down,' " she said.
"I called the communication center and asked if they needed me," she said.
Initial reports of the plane crash pointed in the direction of Waldron's Bottom, an area south of the approach to the airport's runway Number 6. There was also an unconfirmed report that power lines were down in that area.
At first, a command post was set up at the entrance to the airport; it was then moved to the old West Tisbury fire station. Trucks were moved out of the garage so that the space could be used as a meeting room, and a special communication center was set up.
Fire chiefs from Aquinnah, West Tisbury and Oak Bluffs showed up, as did firemen from all the Island towns. The first intense searches focused at an area of woods around Tisbury Great Pond and Chilmark Great Pond. Personnel consulted continuously with Mr. Weibrecht, who had information about the plane's approach.
Later in the evening, Mr. Weibrecht received additional information from Cape approach personnel: the plane was in its second approach to the airport when it is thought to have gone down. Mr. Weibrecht then met with the leadership of the command post and the area of the search was moved eastward to include Scrubby Neck and land directly south of the airport.
Close to a dozen all-terrain vehicles were used, allowing drivers to go out along the shoreline and into the woods in the continuous rain. Vehicles came from the Edgartown and Aquinnah fire departments, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) and The Trustees of Reservations; others were loaned by private citizens.
Three rescue boats from Oak Bluffs, Edgartown and West Tisbury were put into Tisbury Great Pond, all with divers aboard. West Tisbury firemen used their two-week-old rescue boat.
"It was a collaborative effort by a lot of people," said Sergeant Moore. "The weather conditions were phenomenally bad. These people donated their time. There were so many people soaking wet out there in the rain."
Shortly before midnight, the Vineyard chapter of the American Red Cross was on the scene offering coffee and donuts. Later, meals were delivered.
Mr. Weibrecht said the system of airport lights had been inspected along with the rest of the facility two hours prior to the accident, and that additional inspections were made afterwards. He noted it was a heavy rain shower at the time of the presumed crash.
Almost half an inch of rain fell between 7:30 and 8 p.m. at the National Weather Service Cooperative Station in Edgartown. That was the time when Mr. Colson made his approach to the airport. Mr. Weibrecht said a plane had made a landing minutes before Mr. Colson's planned landing and there was a plane waiting to leave.
On Wednesday morning the search resumed at 5:30 a.m. The rescue boats expanded their search in Tisbury Great Pond, while the ground search was expanded along the shoreline from Squibnocket to Wasque. By 10 a.m. Wednesday morning, with no additional leads, the Coast Guard had searched 125 square miles of ocean.
On Wednesday morning Mark C. Lewis, the officer in charge at Menemsha Coast Guard Station, said that the Coast Guard will only search the waters if it is believed that there are people alive. That search was suspended at 8 p.m.
Yesterday, Sergeant Searle said the ocean water temperature was 53 degrees. He said a healthy person in such water might be able to survive for 10 hours. The Coast Guard suspended its search 24 hours after the plane was believed to have gone down.
Beverly Robinson, a friend and associate of Mr. Buchannan, said she was saddened by the decision to stop the search. "The Coast Guard, they look for celebrities and famous people. This is sad for the family; it doesn't give them closure."
Mrs. Robinson said she has worked with Mr. Buchannan for 10 years. "He was a perfectionist, a great cabinetmaker. He could do very detailed work. He was a loving and a great father. His two girls were the world to him."
Mr. Buchannan has an ex-wife, Frances Pizzella of Tisbury, and two daughters, Brianna Buchannan, 10, and Megan Buchannan, 7.
On Thursday a group of Mr. Colson's friends joined in the search of the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest.
Mike Fletcher of Oak Bluffs, a carpenter, had worked for Mr. Colson. "He was the nicest guy in the world, quiet and generous," Mr. Fletcher said. He said that Mr. Colson had left the Island on Friday to fly down to Florida. He had spent Saturday at Key West.
Cathy Lattanzi of Edgartown, another friend, added: "He would drop everything to help someone out. He was very generous."
"If it was me they were looking for, he'd be here looking for me," said Mr. Fletcher.
Mr. Weibrecht said he knew Mr. Colson, whom he said was an active airport commissioner. The latter was a particularly good commissioner, Mr. Weibrecht said, because he used the facility, was aware of its many issues and spent a lot of time flying in and out of the airport.
Mr. Weibrecht said the "ping" reported earlier in the day was investigated with no result. "It was fully investigated with no luck. It is no longer being heard. It could have been a radio test from anywhere," he said.
Sergeant Searle said there were more than 150 people involved in this search. "At any given moment there were hundreds working on this search. The commitment that all of the people were willing to take during this terrible incident is amazing," said Sergeant Searle.