The conclusion to an exhaustive two-week search for a missing Cessna 172M came Saturday, Jan. 13, when scuba divers recovered the bodies of two Ogden residents from under twenty feet of water in the Great Salt Lake.
Private pilot Denny Mansell, 71, and his passenger Peter Ellis, 74, flew out of the Ogden-Hinckley Airport on Dec. 29 in a small red and white Cessna 172, N4395R. They had planned to fly to the Promontory Point area to take photos of trains at the Winter Steam Festival at the Golden Spike National Historic Site. However, when they failed to return as scheduled and no airport reported sighting them, a search and rescue operation was launched.
The Department of Public Safety began a helicopter search that night, while Box Elder County deputies searched by road. Civil Air Patrol airplanes joined the search the following morning.
In addition, the Hill Flying Club, which owned the missing airplane, launched a private search operation for its missing members. Dozens of private pilots who knew the pair searched for hours from the air at their own expense.
“They’re like family. These guys are husbands, they have wives, they’re fathers, they have kids, they’re grandpas, they have grandkids. They’re just stellar people,” said John Maimberg, president of the Hill Flying Club, in an interview with KSL News.
However, it was a Weber County sheriff sonar boat that finally located the downed aircraft on Sunday, Jan. 7.
Images obtained from sonar “convinced us that the object was absolutely an airplane and was consistent with the size of a Cessna 172,” Box Elder County sheriff’s chief deputy Dale Ward said.
A scuba diving team immediately started training for what Ward would later call “the most technical dive operation that Weber or Box Elder County teams have ever been involved with.” In fact, the already difficult operation that would be further hampered by poor weather, equipment failures, extreme buoyancy, and underwater visibility of less than one foot. The team also spent time familiarizing themselves with a similar Cessna 172, practicing opening doors and releasing seatbelts, all by feel.
At 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 13, with the help of Utah State Parks boats, the Weber County dive team descended to the crash site.
Despite having to double their weight to reach their airplane and reporting almost zero visibility, divers were able to recover the bodies of Mansell and Ellis.
“Search and rescue teams as a group wish to extend our condolences to the families of Mr. Mansell and Mr. Ellis, and are thankful we are able to bring some closure to the families,” Ward said.
Mansell’s and Ellis’s bodies have been turned over to the Utah State Medical Examiner’s Office, and the National Transportation Safety Board has taken over recovery of the Cessna 172 and will investigate the cause of the crash.
It is hoped that the NTSB will, by determining the cause of this crash, be able to prevent similar tragedies from occurring in the future.[UPDATE 2018.02.22]: The NTSB has released its preliminary report on the accident. It can be viewed here.