Pilot still missing after 12-year-old crash site located

Family continues to search for pilot Ernie Hesse whose plane went down in Eagle Pass.

Ernie Hesse Sr. stands with his favourite plane

Ernie Hesse Sr., 62, had about 35 years of flying experience when he taxied his two-tone, single-engine, 1959 Piper Comanche onto the runway of the 108 Mile Airport.

Sept. 8, 2000 was a cloudy day at the small airport just outside of 100 Mile House. The Stratford, Ont. native had just purchased the aging blue and white plane from a local resident and was on the first leg of his journey back to Ontario. His first scheduled stop was Lethbridge, Alta.

Hesse was not familiar with his newly-purchased antique plane. He’d taken it for a test flight the day before and ran into mechanical problems.

Tom Schaff was the manager of the 108 Mile Airport in 2000. He helped Hesse deal with the mechanical troubles.

“It turned out to be a faulty spark plug, and I fixed it,” Schaff told the 100 Mile Free Press back in 2000. “It’s quite common.”

The problem solved, Hesse paid for the plane and filed his flight plans for the next day. As he lifted off into the clouds at about 1 p.m., he faced a challenging flight over the Rocky Mountains. The forecast on his route predicted deteriorating conditions; scattered and broken cloud, rain and thundershowers.

At 6:10 p.m., Lethbridge Flight Services notified the B.C. Rescue Co-ordination Centre that Hesse had failed to arrive on schedule.

The archives of the 100 Mile House Free Press detail an extensive search for Hesse’s plane. At least nine aircraft were involved, conducting a grid search over parts of an estimated 20,000 square kilometres along his flight path.

Officials ended the search on Sept. 22, but the pilot’s son, Ernie Hesse Jr., bankrolled a private search after that, including helicopter time.

Nick Holmes-Smith is the owner and operator of Mustang Powder, a cat-skiing operation located in the Monashee Mountains to the west of Revelstoke.

Back in 2005, he was just establishing his business, which is located at the end of a service road that connects to the Trans-Canada Highway. He was paying crews to cut snow-cat paths through the forest.

One day, two crew members spotted a wrecked plane. It was snarled in dense bush near the low point of a ridge. The location is between Perry River and Third Creek, about 20 kilometres north of the Trans-Canada.

The workers relayed the story to Holmes-Smith. They’d found an old, antique plane – a historical wreck, they thought.

“We just assumed that somebody found this wreckage, right?” said Holmes-Smith.

He had it in the back of his mind to visit the wreck one day. That day came in early September of this year when he bushwhacked off the cat trail to the site.

“It was a small plane, very badly damaged,” Holmes-Smith said. “There was still some paperwork sitting among the wreckage. There were the running shoes, a sweater – a few things – and, I think, that’s kind of odd. It’s kind of odd that they didn’t take the paperwork and the personal effects.”

Other than some leftover clothing, there was no sign of the pilot.

The pilot’s seatbelt was located about 15 metres in front of the plane; the nuts and bolts that anchored it to the frame had been ripped out with it.

“It was a low spot on the ridge,” Holmes-Smith said. “I kind of have the feeling they might have been trying to get from one drainage to another and were trying to go through the lowest spot – probably in bad weather – didn’t make it.”

He told the story to a pilot friend. She told him to contact the Canadian Transportation Safety Board with the call sign from the wreck.

Sgt. Don McLean is the Operations Supervisor at the 100 Mile House RCMP detachment. The historical file landed on his desk. He contacted the Revelstoke RCMP who, along with Revelstoke SAR, investigated the wreck and conducted a ground search of the area. However, they weren’t able to locate Hesse’s remains.

“Based on the information that’s available, it’s pretty clear that it was a pretty violent crash,” McLean said in an interview. “We’re pretty confident that the amount of damage that was in the structure of the plane, that he wouldn’t have survived the crash. The fact that his ID was located there indicates that he was there. I don’t think that he walked out.”

The theory is that wildlife – it’s grizzly country – could have gotten to the deceased pilot, removing his body from the scene.

McLean said the RCMP have notified family members and are in the process of closing the file, ending a 12-year-old mystery.

Son Ernie Hesse Jr. continued on with a privately funded search for three months in 2000, but came up with nothing.

“He was a great pilot. I grew up in the plane with him,” Hesse Jr. said. His father first took him up when he was only five, teaching him to fly over the years. “Flying was his passion.”

The pilot was an active man who enjoyed playing slo-pitch and racquetball.

“He was a very smart guy,” Hesse Jr. said.

Hesse Sr. was also an electrician, working for the Fram Oil Filters manufacturing company in Stratford, Ont.

His father had flown in many planes over the years and loved trying out Second World War-era planes. He’d flown from Ontario to B.C. several times in the past and was familiar with the routes.

When he got the call in September of this year, Hesse Jr. mobilized 13 members of the family, who travelled to the Eagle Pass to search for his father’s remains. They flew into the area via helicopter from Three Valley Gap. Unfortunately, they were unsuccessful.

Hesse Jr. is convinced mechanical problems were the cause.

“I was at the airport the day he left,” he said, noting the mechanical problems and repairs on the plane the day before.

“It looked like to me he was trying to fly down the Perry River and coming backwards,” Hesse Jr. said. “I think he was trying to get to the (Trans-Canada Highway). We all strongly believe that it was mechanical issues with the plane.” They feel he had turned around and was looking for an emergency landing strip when he crashed.

Hesse said there are two outstanding items that need closure.

The first is the mechanical condition of the plane; he’s concerned issues with the plane may not have been fully disclosed when his father bought it the day before the crash.

“I would love if the RCMP would follow through and try to determine the cause of the crash,” Hesse Jr. said. “But looking at the plane, it would be hard to find any evidence now. There’s nothing left of it. It was just a big scrap pile.”

The second is bringing his dad’s remains home. He plans to return after the snow melts next season to mount a bigger search.

“I’m sure I will find something.”

Story by Aaron Orlando – Revelstoke Times Review