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Details emerge about missing plane's final flight

BROOKINGS — John Belnap took off from the Brookings airport on a moonless Monday night in clear, calm conditions, and had told a friend earlier in the day he wouldn't risk flying in bad weather.

Something went wrong not long after takeoff, and Belnap, 46, his son Max, 17, and friend Ryan Merker, 17, are presumed dead after the Cessna 172 crashed into the Pacific Ocean.

Belongings of the trio were found along Lone Ranch Beach four miles north of Brookings Tuesday morning.

The search continued Wednesday and today. Curry County Sheriff John Ward said he flew in a Cal-Ore Life Flight helicopter for a few hours Wednesday, with no sightings of wreckage. Search-and-rescue dive teams are on the scene, including from Josephine and Jackson counties.

"It's a huge area they're going to work in, probably starting 100 yards offshore," Ward said.

Ward added that the only piece of the plane to be found was a nose-wheel lodged in the rocks.

Jonathan Jenson of Grants Pass is one of Belnap's friends, and a co-worker, and the co-owner of his plane. Earlier reports of the plane being rented in Grants Pass were incorrect.

Jenson said Wednesday that Belnap was a conscientious, safe and a good pilot.

"That was his plan, if conditions weren't right, he was going to leave the plane in Brookings," Jenson said. "He was always safe. He tried to take every precaution."

Belnap had his license for two years, and was not instrument-rated, Jenson said.

Jenson and Belnap became friends while working as nurse anesthetists in Grants Pass, and shortly after began sharing the plane that Jenson brought when he moved from Iowa five years ago.

Jenson said Belnap had flown to Salinas, Calif., Friday on a work assignment, then flew to Brookings Monday to meet his family there for the Fourth of July holiday.

Jenson said the 50-year-old plane flew fine on Belnap's trip north.

"He said it was a beautiful flight," Jenson said. "I flew the plane just a few weeks ago to Pendleton. Even though it's old, it was mechanically in good condition."

Belnap family members, including wife, Cheryl, and four children, and Ryan Merker, drove from Grants Pass to Brookings Monday, Jenson said.

The family watched fireworks on the harbor, then dropped John, Max and Ryan off at the airport, Jenson said.

Wind at the Brookings airport was calm, topping at 5 mph, but stronger offshore, according to Charles Smith of the National Weather Service in Medford.

Data from a buoy about 5 to 8 miles offshore and about 10 miles south of the crash area showed surface winds of 30 mph and winds aloft of 40 mph between 10 and 11 p.m., according to Smith.

"It was probably a little bit stronger off the coast of Brookings," Smith said. "The winds increase pretty fast as you go offshore. You hit that wall of wind. It's a pretty quick change."

It's unclear how far offshore Belnap's plane flew. It reportedly headed west from the airport, which is about a mile inland, before turning to the northeast and disappearing from radar.

Allen Kenitzer, spokesperson for the Federal Aviation Administration in Seattle, said finding out whether Belnap radioed that he was in distress would require a Freedom of Information Act request.

There are no reports of witness sightings of the plane in the air, but a man who commented on the Curry Coastal Pilot web page who lives nearby remembers hearing a plane around 11:15 p.m. — unusual for that time of day. He also said the plane wasn't sputtering but sounded like it was trying to land.

Because the Brookings airport is a general aviation airport, it has no manned tower, said Summer Matteson, economic development specialist for Curry County. Pilots fly in and out on their own.

She said every airport has a telephone number pilots can call with the latest on wind direction and other weather conditions.

Jenson flew to Brookings at sunrise Tuesday and was told at the airport it was calm and clear the night before.

"I know there wasn't fog in Brookings," Jenson said.

Ward added, "There was no fog, but it was awfully dark."

Monday was the new moon, with absolutely no moonlight. Such conditions raise the possibility of spatial disorientation, a physical phenomenon that can cause pilots to lose control of their craft.

The FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board investigate accidents simultaneously, and an investigation will commence when the wreckage is found, Kenitzer said.

Reach reporter Jeff Duewel at 541-474-3720 or jduewel@thedailycourier.com