Weather hampered Thursday’s search efforts for a Santa Rosa couple not heard from since taking off in their single-engine plane Monday afternoon from the Truckee-Tahoe Airport en route to Petaluma.
One surveillance flight was able to take off Thursday morning in the search for Mark and Brenda Richard’s Socata TB-20, which officials estimate disappeared five minutes after leaving the 5,900-foot elevation airport about 4 p.m. Monday.
In a statement released Thursday morning, the Richards’ family, which includes daughters Lauren, Madeline, Ashley and Danielle, remained hopeful.
“We have confidence in the search and rescue team and are grateful for the support and efforts of everyone involved,” the statement said.
“We are staying positive and would appreciate privacy at this time.”
When the Richards took off Monday in Truckee, the National Weather Service said it was 45 degrees, with a 6-mph southerly wind and 10-miles visibility.
But about 18 miles northwest of the airport where the Richards’ plane disappeared, the weather can be “drastically different,” said Hardy Bullock, director of aviation and community services for the airport. Because of the high altitude and rugged terrain, flying in and out of the mountain airport can be tricky..
It implemented a “Fly Aware” campaign posting signs at the airport and on its website to educate pilots about the unique circumstances.
“We have a pilot and passenger coordinator who walks around the airport, trying to catch passengers before they depart,” Bullock said, “to talk to them about the challenges that they’re going to face flying into and out of Truckee.”
Altitude, air density, changing weather and wind shear — the abrupt changes in wind speed and direction that can occur over the Sierra Nevada peaks — are among the hazards pilots face flying in and out of the mountain airport, Bullock said.
He said no airport staffers made contact Monday with the Richards and security footage shows they didn’t visit the terminal.
Robert Bousquet, board member of the Tahoe Flying Club based at the Truckee-Tahoe Airport, said a pilot flying a single-engine plane should consider the temperature drops 3 degrees for every thousand feet climbed.
“If you don’t have a plane that can climb through the weather with de-icing equipment, and get above it, then you don’t have a lot of other options other than to fly through it,” Bosquet said.
“So, if you’re at the freezing level, and it was pretty close on Monday ... and it was misting and kind of wet and rainy, those aren’t great plane conditions.”
With no de-icing equipment, a single-engine plane would have two options: Fly above the weather, or drop down to a low enough altitude for the ice to melt.
“The problem with flying a single-engine piston aircraft in the mountains is that you cannot descend to get rid of ice because you have the terrain beneath, and you can’t climb because ice disrupts the airflow over the wings, and produces less lift,” Bousquet said.
Because of the terrain and “desolate wilderness” surrounding the Truckee-Tahoe Airport, Bousquet creates his own flight plans that give him as many landing options as possible in an emergency. In eastern Sierra County, there aren’t many landing options, he said.
When flying to Petaluma, he said, there are two typical routes pilots take.