CAP Searches in the Mite

by Chuck Fairchild

Over the 6 years ownership of Mite 4156, we joined in numerous searches. Because the bugger climbed very well at high mountain search altitudes and because it was very maneuverable--able to get close in the canyons and wingover on a dime, it was a good search plane. But because it was single place and only 75 hp, I usually had to convince mission coordinators that the Mite could fly high country searches. Sometimes it would have been better that I hadn't convinced them, since the searches were usually in cold weather and the Mite cockpit was frigid and the seat very hard for 3 hours of mountain turbulence.

Probably the most time spent on a search was that for four elk hunters missing on a spotting flight over the Pecos wilderness in October of '64. We searched day after day for about 2 weeks, but never did find them. My rear end was sore from pounding the seat even though I didn't participate every day. Searching is so boring and fatiguing that it is impracticable to do it day after day--even if you can get the time off from work. The plane was found by a hunter, or hiker 10 years later in a deep wooded canyon in an area that we had scoured. It is unbelievable how much country there is to scan in an air search, even if you have a small search area, and how difficult it is to spot a broken plane in tall, thick timber. It is probable that in mountain country more downed planes are found by ground parties than by air searches.

One extensive search that both N395A and N4156 participated in was the search for Dr. Randolph Lovelace III, a big wheel in aerospace medicine and the honcho at the Lovelace Clinic in ABQ. He and some of his family who had been skiing departed Aspen in a chartered twin Cessna. The search was started quickly all along their flight plan route. The Air Force, no less, brought in several SAR aircraft, including C-130s and jets. We were assigned a search area along the Rio Grande and Chama Rivers from the Colorado border to abeam Los Alamos. Phil and I flew several sorties as a pair to increase our effectiveness and for mutual protection. We were nearly run over once by a C-130 doing a route search up the Rio Grande, and once had a T-37 zip by in the opposite direction a 1/4 mile away, but our main problem was weather. There were numerous snow showers in the area. On one sortie we were separated by decreasing visibility and individually made our way back to Los Alamos. At first a pretty good snow shower almost made it necessary to divert, but I finally made it back and Phil arrived a few minutes later.

The Lovelace party was found within a few days on a high ridge near Independence Pass at 11,000 ft. The pilot had climbed out the wrong valley leaving Aspen. Evidently the valley out-climbed the loaded plane, and while trying to turn around the pilot had cartwheeled the plane in the snow. A couple of people had survived in fairly good shape only to die of exposure.

Another search was to locate a Piper Comanche 250 that had left FMN enroute to Hobbs. We Mites searched the west side of the Jemez mountains one late afternoon, but found nothing. A storm that hit that night, precluded further search for 3 days. Phil couldn't go out the day the weather cleared, so I went alone. Finding a small, high meadow that looked as though it had a distorted, partial SOS tramped in the snow I made several passes but could see nothing nearby, but could not eliminate the chance that the packed snow had been made by an injured human. So I flew to a nearby canyon where I had seen cabins, with the vague thought that I could somehow contact help there. Descending down the valley required a low-power glide. Passing by the cabins I could see they were abandoned, but I was also busy with worse problems by then.

When I tried to add power to get out of the canyon the engine would just sputter. The cylinders had cooled severely in the bitterly cold air and the mixture wouldn't fire properly. I was sweating profusely in spite of the cold, trying to see a decent spot to set down in the boulders and trees, when the engine started running--roaring--again. It turned out that the “SOS” was probably a coincidental trampling by an animal since the Piper Comanche and dead occupant were found by woodcutters a week or so later in the area Phil and I had searched the first day. I would have joined that occupant had my engine delayed running properly for another 10 seconds in the canyon.

There were a few more searches in the Mites, but nothing of note. Phil and I did participate in a few in southern NM that offered us some comfortable (warm) searching for a change. All of them were fruitless, but they gave us a sense of purpose and a sense of helping. That was the only return considering that we received only gas for our time and plane expense.

January 26, 2004