The search for a crashed airplane and whoever may have been on board is stretching into its third day as local law enforcement and a missing pilot’s family scour Chickamauga Lake for clues.
Authorities are treating the search as a recovery effort rather than a rescue, Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Matt Lea said. Search efforts were called off Tuesday evening as night began to fall. They were to resume early Wednesday morning.
Authorities have declined to identify the pilot or say if anyone else was on board, but friends and family have taken to social media to identify him as Frank Davey, of Soddy-Daisy.
“Anyone in Soddy have access to a boat. Dads plane went down in Soddy lake and I’m trying to search. Please!” Stuart Davey wrote in a public Facebook post.
Attempts to reach the family for comment have not been successful.
Frank Davey, a retired U.S. Marine Corps officer, previously worked as an air traffic controller for the Federal Aviation Administration, according to his LinkedIn profile. His flight experience dates back to the 1970s and ’80s. He also taught algebra, according to Times Free Press archives.
A spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration said the plane involved in Monday’s crash was a fixed-wing, single-engine aircraft, which matches a four-seat airplane registered to Frank Davey — a Bellanca 17-30A — that has been listed as missing in an Aviation Safety Network database.
“The aircraft impacted the waters of Chickamauga Lake in Hamilton County at Soddy-Daisy, Tennessee,” the incident narrative reads.
The plane was built in 1971 and had no previous record of incidents or accidents, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Its last registered flight plan shows Frank Davey flew from Darlington, South Carolina, to Chattanooga on Nov. 3.
Hixson Aviation at Dallas Bay Skypark said in an email to its customers that the missing aircraft was based out of Dallas Bay with possibly two people on board. Authorities have not confirmed if there was more than one person on board.
“Please keep the family and friends of those involved in your thoughts and prayers during this extremely difficult time,” Hixson Aviation owner Mark Winton said in the statement. “May God bless all involved and give them comfort in their time of need.”
Dallas Bay Skypark officials declined to comment to the Times Free Press on Tuesday, but told the newspaper’s news partner, WRCB News Channel 3, that while they couldn’t see if anyone was in the back seat of the plane, at least two people were on board at takeoff.
The plane was taking a “scenic flight” and was not headed to another city, WRCB reported.
An FAA spokesman told the Times Free Press that the Chattanooga air traffic control tower got a phone call Monday from a Hamilton County 911 dispatcher who had received several reports of an explosion followed by an aircraft possibly crashing into a wooded area.
But a nearby resident, who declined to give his name, said he saw the airplane make a tight loop and then spiral down into the water on the other side of a small cliff near Camp Vesper Point.
Another resident, Lynn Brotton, said she heard an airplane fly at a very low altitude over her house at around 1:30 p.m. She lives between Possum Creek and Vesper Point and had been outside working in her yard when her grandson called.
“I stopped to talk with him for a minute, and this plane came flying over — and I didn’t see it — but it was so loud,” she said. “It made this, like a whining noise. And I got quiet, and he said, ‘Oh my gosh! Is that plane about to crash into your house?'” I said, ‘I don’t know. It sounds like it!'”
She said the plane continued flying toward the river, but she didn’t hear anything after that.
“It might have actually been having some problems since I heard what I heard,” she said. ” I didn’t have a real clear view. [It was] the loudness of the plane that actually scared me. We all just got quiet.”
Brotton said authorities have told her and others who live nearby to be on the lookout for any debris washing up into the sloughs. Sheriff’s office spokesman Lea asked anyone who thinks they’ve found a piece of the plane to contact the sheriff’s office at 423-622-0022.
On Tuesday, the search and recovery effort resumed as local law enforcement staged crews and equipment at the Possum Creek RV Park and Campground boat ramp.
Several agencies are involved, including the sheriff’s office, Hamilton County Emergency Management, the Sale Creek Volunteer Fire Department, Dallas Bay Volunteer Fire Department and Hamilton County Special Tactics and Rescue Services.
As of Tuesday, only a few more small pieces of the airplane have been found, Lea said.
“Operations like this take a lot of time. There is a lot of effort that has to go into the logistics of the investigation, moving the aircraft once it’s found,” Lea said, asking boaters to avoid the area near the crash site so recovery crews can search.
On Tuesday afternoon, U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., tweeted his condolences to the missing man’s family.
“I am monitoring the plane crash in #SoddyDaisy,” he wrote. “Please join me in praying for the safety of the pilot and all who may have been involved in this tragedy.”
Based on how far the wreckage traveled in the fast-moving currents, it could take days or even weeks to locate the plane and any occupants, Lea said.
The sheriff’s office has brought in several specialized divisions to aid in the search, including personnel with the criminal investigations division, marine patrol, unmanned aerial systems division (drone) and a forensic dive team. Searchers are scanning the bottom of the river with sonar, underwater cameras and other resources.
But wind, water current, temperatures and depths have been significantly hampering the recovery effort.
“We are looking at depths of 30-50 feet with a water temperature of approximately 50 [degrees with] low-to-zero visibility,” Lea said.
The Tennessee Valley Authority began reducing water flow into Chickamauga Lake on Tuesday to help recovery crews better search for the downed plane and any of its occupants, a spokesman said.
Water is still being released, just not at the same rate. But TVA personnel eventually will have to increase the water flow again because of the recent heavy rains.
Wednesday’s weather will only add more difficulties for recovery crews, with temperatures dipping down into the 20s for the low and upper 40s for the high, according to WRCB. That’s about a 20-degree difference from Tuesday.
Once the airplane is located, a salvage crane or barge will be brought in to lift it out of the water, Lea said. That process will be handled carefully in order to protect any evidence that may explain what caused the crash.
“This may require input from salvage professionals, depending on the level of the airplane, as far as how deep it is in the water, also as far as how much damage has taken place to the main fuselage,” Lea said.
A spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration said the agency has no plans to investigate the crash at this time, but local authorities are working in coordination with the NTSB.
However, the NTSB is delaying accident investigations and hearings as the partial government shutdown continues, according to the Associated Press. The board has delayed some investigations, including an examination of a Florida highway accident that killed five children on their way to Walt Disney World.
And small-plane crashes in three states that killed five people have not received NTSB scrutiny during the shutdown, the Washington Post reported on Jan. 3.
It’s unclear how the shutdown may impact the investigation of the Soddy-Daisy crash.
NTSB representatives did not answer phone calls or respond to emails Tuesday. A recorded message for the media relations office said all of the office’s personnel had been furloughed and nobody would respond until the shutdown ends. The message suggested leaving a voicemail, but the mailbox was full.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the family of those who were lost on the plane,” Lea said.
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