For more than a week, Civil Air Patrol volunteers flew repeated sorties over fields and forests on the Eastern Shore, where a student pilot disappeared. They searched the beaches and sent divers into the Chesapeake Bay but still came up blank.
And as they suspended their air search last Monday, the mystery deepened. How could an airplane 23 feet long with a wingspan of 25 feet just disappear? Without a trace? On the Eastern Shore?
It is not as surprising as it might appear, say CAP officers who are veterans of dozens of searches for downed private planes.
If the 1973 Piper Cherokee rented by Rosa Maria Tames Gonzalez of Annapolis went down in the bay, "it would be like trying to hunt treasure ships in the ocean," said Lt. Col. Marvin Storey, the CAP officer who headed the search.
And if the aircraft went down in a forested area, "those trees
could bend when the plane went in and close right back up and you'd never see it," he added.
He and Lt. Webster Alexander, a CAP spokesman, cited the search in May 1990 for a Cessna 210 carrying six Northern Virginia men that crashed in the dense hardwood forests of Spotsylvania County, Va. A crew on the ground, aided by projections of officials who reviewed the plane's radar path, found the crash site eight days later, after the air search was abandoned.
In that case, the aircraft apparently hit the ground at a steep angle, caused little damage to the trees and did not catch fire. It was all but invisible from the air.
Of the 2,000 general aviation accidents that occur in a year, perhaps 1 percent or 2 percent of the planes are not found within a day, said Brent Bahler, spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board. "It depends on a lot of factors, but usually, you get that in the late spring or summer and early fall when leaves are still on the trees."
Ms. Tames Gonzalez, a native of Spain who used the name Maria Tames, had lived in Annapolis for several years, according to her flight instructors. A NTSB preliminary report on her disappearance shows that she had logged about 60 hours of flying time, 10 of them solo. She had a student pilot's certificate and was working toward a private pilot's license.
She left Lee Airport in Edgewater about 1 p.m. Oct. 4, flew to Bay Bridge Airport on Kent Island, then to Summit Airport north of Dover, Del. Her plans were to fly from Summit to Easton, then back to Lee on her second cross-country jaunt.
She was last heard from at 2:18 p.m. that day. She spoke to air traffic controllers in Dover as she flew over an area seven miles north of Millington, Md., about where the Sassafras River meets U.S. 301 near the Delaware line.
The plane was equipped with an Emergency Locating Transmitter, which is to broadcast a steady signal in the event of a crash. That signal was never picked up. The transmitters won't work, however, if they are under water, or if they have been damaged in a crash.
"It's not like the black boxes on commercial airliners," Lieutenant Alexander said. "It's just a transmitter in a plastic box."
The three-person search teams -- one pilot and two spotters in each plane -- flew crisscrossing patterns over the line Ms. Tames Gonzalez would have flown from Delaware to Easton and back to rTC Edgewater, gradually widening it to 10 miles on each side. When that failed, they divided the state into grids stretching from Millington to the Virginia line and from Ocean City to the Western Shore and began carefully searching each grid, first flying back and forth across it from north to south, then east to west.
If they flew over one grid in the morning, they traversed it again in the afternoon when the light was coming from a different angle until they were 95 percent certain they had covered each grid.
The number of search planes involved varied, with as many as 50 searching at a time.
She could have tried to land in a farm field, overshot and gone into nearby woods, suggested Colonel Storey. "But if she did, you'd see pieces of the plane at the edge of the woods. We saw nothing."
If she crashed into the bay, you'd expect to find pieces of the plane that tore off on impact, he said.
"We found cushions floating around, but they were boat cushions. We even founds parts of an airplane on Bloodsworth Island, but that's right across the bay from Patuxent River Naval Air Station and we think they were parts of drones they were using for target practice. But nothing from a Piper Cherokee."
Coast Guard search and rescue teams, working on tips, combed the waters off Thomas Point and Cove Point, but found nothing.
If Ms. Tames Gonzalez's plane went down on land, "she'll be found within the next month when the leaves come off the trees," Colonel Storey predicted.