Treasures of the Valley » Mike Lawler

Montrose Search and Rescue – Finding a Crashed Airplane on Catalina Island

Mike Lawler is the former
president of the Historical Society
of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at

Because the Montrose Search and Rescue team is so highly regarded, it is often called out to exotic locations far from home. Such was the case in February 2009 when a small plane on a sightseeing run to Catalina Island disappeared on its way back to John Wayne Airport in Orange County. The Beechcraft Bonanza, with a pilot and two tourists aboard, took off from Catalina’s “airport in the sky” just before dark, but never showed up after the expected 20-minute flight to the mainland. Catalina’s hilltop airport, a compact airstrip wedged onto a shaved-off mountaintop, is intimidating to many pilots, who equate it with landing and taking off from an aircraft carrier. To top it off, it was cloudy and raining the evening the ill-fated plane took off.

The Coast Guard searched the waters around the island all night, but found no wreckage. In the morning, the call went out to the MSR team to assemble for helicopter transport to the island to search the rugged terrain around the airport. Because of the bad weather conditions, an air search would be impossible; it would have to be done on foot. The cloud cover was nearly down to the water, so the rescue chopper was only able to drop the team off on a remote beach of the island. Two four-wheel drive jeeps from Avalon met team members there and drove them into the back-country. MSR team member Mike Leum describes the search:

“We raced up the road near the top of the island and told the driver to stop. We got out and deployed our direction-finding equipment, which emits an audible beep tone when it finds the signal from the plane’s ELT.”

All airplanes carry an ELT unit (Emergency Locator Transmitter). These small units automatically transmit a radio beacon when they are turned on automatically by a sharp impact, such as a crash.

“Not hearing any signals, we drove on down the road. Upon re-deploying the device, we got a hit. It was faint, but the signal was distinct. We sent the other Jeep with team members further down the road, and they also got a hit. These devices are direction finding, so upon getting the compass bearings, we were able to narrow the search area. As we hiked on foot, the signal became stronger.

“We broke into an all-out run hoping to find survivors. For some reason, we always assume that we are looking for live victims, even though common sense would say otherwise. I swear – SAR members are the most optimistic people you will ever meet. We assume someone is alive until proven otherwise, even after a plane crash.

“Then the smell hit us, the smell of burnt electronics. We came upon the fuselage, shrouded in fog. As we ran closer, it appeared very unlikely that anyone could survive the inferno that had happened only hours before.”

The team found no one alive, only the charred bodies of the pilot and his two passengers. Their optimism had been in vain.

Mike continues: “There is a distinct smell of burned flesh that is like none other. It permeated the air. We weren’t able to move the bodies due to the NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board] investigators needing to see the site, along with homicide detectives who were responding. Lacking any survivors, our role was done and we returned to the mainland while Avalon sheriff deputies kept watch over the site.”

Mike Leum’s description of the search illustrates the type of people that the MSR team is made up of. He describes them as being the most optimistic people you would ever meet, and that they always assume that they will find survivors. And yet, when their hopes are dashed and they find only dead bodies, as they often do, they are somehow able to recover, move on and renew their sense of optimism for the next rescue operation. These men and women of the MSR are massively strong, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. We have true heroes living amongst us in our peaceful valley.