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DOWNCAST SEARCHERS HEAD HOME

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An autopsy and federal crash investigation were all that remained for state public safety officials to do Wednesday after a three-day search for a missing Utah Highway Patrol pilot came to a tragic end Tuesday afternoon.

A state investigator flying as an observer in a Utah Army National Guard helicopter spotted the wreckage of the downed military-surplus helicopter. Paramedics who were dropped from another helicopter on a nearby mountain ridge hiked to the crash site and reported trooper Doyle Thorne had died inside the wreckage.Until then, officials hoped the veteran pilot had been able to maneuver his disabled helicopter to the ground and escape alive.

But the hopes were dashed, when paramedics on the ground radioed the bad news. State public safety officials have not yet said whether Thorne died in the crash or sometime thereafter. The state medical examiner's office had scheduled an autopsy Wednesday morning.

The wreckage was found in an area southeast of Strawberry Reservoir. Searchers focused their efforts there Tuesday after a review of air-traffic radar tapes showed the chopper's transponder signal ending near Strawberry Peak during the ill-fated Saturday flight.

Thorne had been flying toward the area where a 2-year-old Arizona girl was missing. He received word she had been found unharmed, so he changed his course and was returning to Salt Lake City. A problem developed with the aircraft, and he sent a distress call to dispatchers: "I had a problem coming through the canyon. I'm below 10,000 feet. I'm losing power. I'm going into the trees."

Utah Army National Guard pilot Chief Warrant Officer Lewis C. Olson was searching the area Tuesday afternoon in a UH-1 "Huey" with two state observers when the crew flew low over a ridge, simulating maneuvers it would have to make if the craft were in trouble.

That's when state Department of Investigations observer Mitch Ingersoll asked Olson to swing around and make a second pass. "He thought he saw something, so we came around and saw bits and pieces of the helicopter," Olson said.

State Public Safety Commissioner Doug Bodrero said spotting the wreckage was especially jarring to Ingersoll. "He and Doyle flew together every weekend," he said. "It was both the best and worst for him to be the one to find him."

Guard 1st Lt. Gregory Hart-vig-sen said the position of the crash indicated Thorne had been shooting unsuccessfully for a clearing. "He was just trying to hit a hole. If he had found a hole he would have hit it, but there wasn't one."

Pilots and observers could barely see the wreckage from the air even after it had been spotted. "We had spent three hours circling that spot. The trees - it looked like they had just swallowed him up," Hartvigsen said.

Ironically, the crash site was not far from where Doyle and a Duchesne County deputy sheriff had crashed in the same kind of helicopter in 1989. Neither was hurt in that crash.

An estimated 250 people, including teams from the law enforcement community and Thorne's neighborhood and LDS Church ward members, were helping in the search.

A number of the searchers filed through the command post at the Duchesne airport after hearing the crash site had been located. Road construction on U.S. 40 slowed traffic into a somber caravan of searchers as they returned to Salt Lake City later Tuesday afternoon.