14 Nov 1991
Enroute from Bullhead City, AZ to Fullerton, CA. The aircraft departed on its cross country flight into marginal wx. The group had arrived on 13 Nov & spent overnight in the gambling town of Laughlin, NV, across the Colorado River from Bullhead City. They checked out of their hotel at noon on 14 Nov for a flight back to Fullerton. Pilot called the Prescott FSS before departure & was advised during his wx brief that there were high winds & the mountains on his route were obscured. Pilot departed anyways. Although no one is certain, according to the NTSB the aircraft apparently left the Bullhead City area sometime about 1700. No one saw them depart & no transmissions were heard from the pilot after take off. They were due back at Fullerton late afternoon of 14 Nov. The pilot did not file a flight plan, but was immediately reported missing to the Fullerton Police Department by his grandparents. The forecast was IFR conditions with a cold front moving into Southern CA that day, creating high winds in the deserts with rain, snow & sleet in the mountains.
The 2 state (CA, AZ) search was coordinated by the AFRCC at Scott AFB, IL. CA CAP Wing had been planning a SAREX at the Palm Springs Airport for the weekend of 16-17 Nov when they were alerted. Aircraft & personnel were re-tasked the same day to perform a 100 mile wide route search along 2 most likely routes the pilot may have flown from Bullhead City. These were either through the Banning Pass along I-10 or the Cajon Pass following I-15. It had been hoped the missing plane had made an emergency landing somewhere in the desert & the occupants were waiting rescue. AZ CAP was tasked to search a 15-square-mile area above the lower Colorado River Valley & along the AZ-CA border. By 16 Nov, over 50 CAP aircraft were searching the deserts & mountains in Riverside & San Bernardino Counties. Numerous trash dumps, abandoned cars & appliances & other wreckage littering the deserts complicated search efforts. When initial search efforts failed to locate the missing plane, officials thought the pilot may have flown S thru El Centro to avoid the bad wx on his route home. This idea was disputed by family members who believed the pilot would have flown a direct route home. On the weekend of 16-17 Nov, CAP conducted a maximum effort involving as many as 70 aircraft & 160 members operating from the Palm Springs Airport. The area searched concentrated over a 12,000-square-mile area from Palmdale S to Mexicali, as well as over restricted military airspace near Twenty-Nine Palms. On 17 Nov, CA CAP aircraft searched W to Daggett & SW to the Cajon Pass, as well as in the Hesperia & Big Bear areas. AZ CAP searched the area from Bullhead City S to Needles.
By 18 Nov, CAP had exhausted resources & scaled back their efforts after the extensive weekend search produced no results. That day, the search base was shifted to the Apple Valley Airport where only 9 aircraft were available to continue the search along the 2 possible routes across the Mojave Desert that were considered to be the pilot’s favorite. Their efforts were hampered by strong, erratic winds. That same day AZ CAP suspended their search efforts after a final search by 5 CAP aircraft, but CAP considered expanding the search into Mexico. However, a check with Mexican Customs Service found no evidence the aircraft entered or landed in Mexico. The families held a press conference to beg employers to give more time off to CAP volunteers since the number of pilots had dwindled to a handful on some weekdays because of pressures for volunteers to go back to work. Some of the family members participated in the search as aerial observers. On 19 Nov, the wreckage of an aircraft missing since 5 Aug 1983 was spotted by a NV CAP aircraft crashed in the open desert 4 miles N of I-40 near Essex, CA.
Investigators checked several tips from the public, such as reports of low-flying planes in the general area. But no solid leads were ever turned up about the plane's whereabouts. By 20 Nov, the effort had searched the same areas 3-4 times. Another maximum effort was made the weekend of 23-24 Nov with over 31 CAP aircraft joined by 10 from NV CAP. The restricted area at the USMC Base at Twenty-Nine Palms & other military bases were searched again that weekend. On 25 Nov, 12 CAP aircraft flew sorties from the Apple Valley Airport over an area about 20 N of Daggett. 2 San Bernardino County Sheriff's helicopters aided in the search over the small town of Goffs, about 25 NW of Needles. Rain & snow hampered search efforts 27-28 Nov. On 29 Nov, 19 CAP aircraft operating from Apple Valley continued the search. Orange County Search & Rescue also provided a private Bell 206 helicopter flying from Riverside to search the San Bernardino Mountains & Morongo Valley. Strong winds & turbulence hampered their efforts. The search was suspended 5 Dec after flying over 400 sorties in 2200 flight hrs. The search involved over 1000 personnel. CAP stated the search lasted almost three weeks, & was unusually long because of the vast area that needed to be covered. The search covered 25000 square miles.
The families & friends of the missing raised funds to continue a private air-ground search along the NE slope of the San Bernardino Mountains & thru the Banning Pass. Many private pilots volunteered their time & aircraft to continue the search. They firmly believed the aircraft was crashed on the N slope of the San Bernardino Mountains. They distributed posters at airports & towns along the route. Their search efforts were halted due to winter wx, but continued on weekends when the wx permitted. By Feb 1992, a major effort was planned for the spring-summer of 1992 after the snow melted. The 4 families involved had raised over $10,000 to pay for private aircraft & helicopters. The private searches were conducted over 3 weekends in June-July 1992 centering on the N slope of the San Bernardino Mountains as well as over the direct route from Bullhead City to Fullerton. The missing pilot’s father had personally flown 30 search flights logging 150 flight hrs. Many CAP members offered their time & money to assist the families in their search.
The wreckage was finally spotted crashed in the San Bernardino National Forest by the father of the pilot in a private helicopter chartered to conduct a private search for the wreckage. This was to be the last sortie on the last day of the privately funded search as all funds had been exhausted. Unable to land at the site, they contacted a San Bernardino County Sheriff’s helicopter that flew to the crash site & confirmed its identity. As reported by the media, the missing aircraft had flown into the wooded slope at the 7000 ft level, 200 ft below the summit of Rattlesnake Mountain on the N slope of San Bernardino Mountains, 15 NW of Big Bear Lake, CA. However, visitors to the crash site state it is crashed on 6131 ft White Mountain, about 5 E of Rattlesnake Mountain. A San Bernardino County ground team recovered the remains of all 5. The position where all 5 were found indicate they was killed on impact. Investigators found the missing plane had clipped 2 trees & crashed into a 3rd tree. The left wing had separated on impact & was found 150 ft downhill from the main wreckage. The missing pilot’s father & brother were initially not allowed into the crash site by the NTSB, but were later allowed to go in where the brother identified the dead. They also recovered personal belongings.
As chronicled by the L.A. Times, the search took a toll on the family, children & friends of the missing. The family was critical of CAP for its management of the search. The pilot’s father insisted that his son flew direct routes to his destinations and his route of the flight over the San Bernardino Mountains would have been no different. However, search officials believed the pilot deviated S from his presumed route of flight due to the marginal wx over the mountain areas. They did not search the Big Bear area until after it was covered in snow. As it turned out, the crash site was found on what appeared to be a direct route from AZ to Fullerton, just as the family had said. This was denied by CA CAP who stated that route searches were flown through the Cajon Pass. They also vaguely criticized the missing pilot for his poor judgment in dealing with the bad wx. As a result of their experience, the families established the Aviation Search and Relief Fund.
The NTSB determined the probable cause of the accident was the pilot’s in-flight decision to continue flight into adverse wx conditions & inadequately evaluating the wx. Contributing factors included the inability of the pilot to see the mountainous terrain due to the ambient light conditions & obscurations & the pilot’s lack of instrument experience. Investigators later found residents who reported 4000 ft ceilings & “heavy snow” the night of the accident.
Commercial pilot Richard Alan Niemela, 27 with 471 flight hrs, Jeffrey William Bird, 32, his spouse Kathryn Mary Bird, 33, his brother Bradley Scott Bird, 33 & the pilot’s girlfriend, Natalie Lynn Erickson, 19. Registered to Richard A. Niemela of La Mirada, CA.
5 July 1992