LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) – An Arkansas Forestry Commission pilot who went missing with his plane last month while patrolling for wildfires was found dead Tuesday in the wreckage of the aircraft that may have clipped the trees or a rugged mountain itself, the agency said.
The commission said the plane was spotted at about 4 p.m. Tuesday by the Civil Air Patrol and was confirmed by a state police helicopter, with the body of Jake Harrell found by a member of the National Guard who was lowered to the crash site from a helicopter, according to commission spokeswoman Adriane Barnes.
Based on what the guardsman saw, “it is probable at this time that Jake clipped the top of a mountain,” Barnes said.
Crews were working Tuesday night to recover the body, which was still at the scene, she said.
Searchers had been looking for the plane and for Harrell, 34, since he vanished Jan. 31 while on a flight seeking wildfires in the region, but they had struggled with wintry weather. Most days crews were unable to use aircraft in the search, leaving it to teams formed from about 200 ground searchers.
Harrell was filling in for a sick co-worker when he failed to make a scheduled check-in and had not been heard from since. He was supposed to have been in the air for two hours.
Barnes said a representative of the family was with commission officials, who ran a command center at Mena.
“The family knew before anyone else,” Barnes said.
The plane was found west of Glenwood in wooded and mountainous Montgomery County, where some of the most rugged territory in Arkansas can be found.
Numerous agencies took part in the search. The territory is so dangerous that officials would not allow volunteers to help look for Harrell. Their work was made more difficult by a December ice storm that pulled down trees and branches that cluttered the forest floor.
Even when aircraft were able to search, the effort was hampered by areas with thick pine trees and snow.
Pastor Rob Loy of the First Assembly of God in North Little Rock, who has acted as a spokesman for Harrell’s family, said his wife, Jamie, understood the odds were bad for her husband being found safe but had held out hope that her husband was alive.
Forestry officials were uncertain of Harrell’s route so the search area included up to 2 million acres, equal to more than 3,000 square miles. Rescuers received calls from as far away as eastern Oklahoma and northeast Texas.
Harrell’s last known position was near Oden, about 20 miles north of where his plane was found.
Barnes said the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board were contacted.
Associated Press reporter Ken Miller in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.
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