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Pilotless plane crash in northern Ontario woods leaves authorities baffled


OTTAWA—The military search-and-rescue technicians dropped in on a mystery.

A light plane had crashed in the woods in northern Ontario and an air force Hercules transport and Griffon helicopter were dispatched from Trenton to search for survivors.

They located the crash site and two rescuers dropped by parachute to the scene. It’s what they didn’t find that has left authorities on both sides of the border scratching their heads.

There was no pilot in the wreckage, nor any indication that anyone had walked away.

“Aircraft was devoid of any occupant or any trace of an occupant prior to impact; no footprints in snow,” read a preliminary report by Transport Canada.

The plane, a Cessna 172, had departed Ann Arbor, Mich., bound for Harbor Springs, about 370 kilometres north, just after 7 p.m. on March 15.

But the plane overflew its destination and continued north, flying another 380 kilometres over the eastern end of Lake Superior before crashing east of Marathon, Ont., just before midnight.

That’s where military rescuers found it the following day. “They conducted a search of the immediate area and there was nothing to suggest that anybody walked away from the wreckage,” said Ontario Provincial Police Sgt. Peter Leon.

The next day, the OPP flew in its own team to search the crash site and they too came up empty, Leon told the Star.

“It is rather unique,” Leon said. “We’ve had a number of tragedies involving aircraft. Usually when they find the aircraft, they find the pilot or the occupants.”

Investigators with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada also went to the scene to survey the wreckage.

The plane crash has now become a missing persons case, although authorities aren’t holding out much hope they will find the pilot alive.

Police believe that at some point during the flight, the pilot, a 27-year-old PhD student at the University of Michigan, jumped from the plane, leaving it to fly unattended until it crashed.

“The feeling right now is at some point during the flight, the pilot more than likely left the confines of that aircraft. Where abouts? We have no idea,” Leon said.

“It is entirely possible that the pilot could have exited the plane at any point,” he said.

The Transport Canada report pointedly noted that, “the pilot was not a parachutist or does not own a parachute.”

The pilot was seen on the morning of March 15. Later that day, he rented the Cessna at Ann Arbor Airport, according to Diane Brown, a spokeswoman for the University of Michigan police department.

“University police have reasons to believe his actions likely were an act of self-harm,” Brown said in a statement.

“Out of respect for his family, classmates and colleagues, we won’t have additional information to release on the investigation,” she said.

The search has been put on hold but Leon said that police are hoping someone may find something. “We’ll obviously do whatever we can to try to locate the whereabouts of that pilot and follow up on any information that is received,” Leon said.

TORONTO STAR | NEWS | CANADA