Search for Answers Continues in Plane Crash
Nearly two months after a Cessna plane went missing off Molokai’s northwest coast with three people on board, the plane’s disappearance — as well as its location — remain a mystery. Along with initial Coast Guard and Fire Department searches, nearly 100 Molokai residents and family members of the victims helped scour the land and sea. A recent sonar mapping effort conducted by the University of Hawaii was among numerous off-island companies and agencies that have donated time to the search. Yet the definitive evidence has still not been found on the wreckage.
A preliminary report released by the National Transportation Safety Board last month was inconclusive, stating that the plane disappeared and “is presumed to have crashed in the Pacific Ocean.”
After taking off from Ho`olehua Airport en route to Honolulu on the evening of Dec. 30, the privately operated Cessna 172 disappeared off radar around 7 p.m., four miles east of Ilio Point. The plane’s pilot was Michael Childers and passengers were John Mizuno and Whitney Thomas, of Oahu. The NTSB report states the plane “entered a descending right turn seconds after it reached a maximum altitude of approximately 2,525 feet,” with the radar track ending over the water less than a minute later. Poor weather conditions were reported, with wind and low visibility.
The Coast Guard and Fire Department began searching for the plane that night, and continued until Jan. 1 and Jan. 2, respectively, finding no debris or evidence of a crash.
“As family and friends hiked the island, combing every inch possible from sunrise to sunset, we were able to send private helicopters above us to also search from the air,” stated a relative of Thomas on the GoFundMe page the family started. “And all of us were so blessed by the Molokai residents, who opened their homes to us, joined our searches, and uplifted us with their support. One day turned into two, then three…but after 11 days of intensive searching, nothing was found.”
Since then, the University of Hawaii volunteered the efforts of its research vessel, the Kilo Moana, in using sonar to search the topography of the ocean bottom for the wreckage on Jan. 19. Alexander “Sandy” Shor, Associate Dean for research of the UH School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, said the vessel’s crew searched for about eight hours as the Kilo Moana was on its way back from another mission in American Samoa. He said they focused on the area near the plane’s last known radar contact, as well as an oil slick on the water’s surface that had been sighted by observers.
“I wish we had been more successful and been able to identify the plane [but]… We’ve ruled out some areas,” said Shor. “We identified some remotely possible objects on the bottom… about the right size but that I doubt are the plane…. Our expectation going into this was that because no floating debris was found, [the plane] was probably intact on the bottom…. I’m no plane expert, but I think it probably went straight to the bottom.”
For that reason, the crew had their eye out for cross-shaped objects resembling the plane on the sonar images, which they did not find. Due to limitations in the sonar’s performance — which Shor said works optimally in 200 to 400 feet of water — they concentrated their search a few miles of the shore line.
Based on the area they did cover, Shor said he guesses the plane is within a mile offshore, in the area east of Ilio Point. Shor said they analyzed the sonar images they captured and presented their research to the families involved. He added though they don’t normally assist in searches, they will continue to volunteer their services when possible in the future.
“They’re wonderful people, we’ll do whatever we can do to help,” he said of the families. “I hope they get some closure, it’s a tough thing to take. I’ve got kids that age, so it really hit home for me.”
Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard has also been working to assist with the search, communicating with the NTSB, FAA and other agencies and organizations involved.
“Although the initial search efforts and secondary ocean scans using mapping and sonar technology were not successful in confirming the plane’s location, I’m hopeful further efforts involving satellite imagery will reveal new information regarding the aircraft’s condition and whereabout,” said Gabbard. “We are all committed to finding this plane and helping the families affected by its crash however possible.”
The GoFundMe page has raised nearly $40,000 as of Sunday. Thomas’ cousin Minky Hoopai said the funds are earmarked to cover the cost of a salvage company to extract the wreckage — an effort that’s on hold until the plane is located.
Hoopai said the families have continued “grassroots” search efforts, and she expressed gratitude for all who have provided assistance.