SALT LAKE CITY — The bodies of two men, reported missing Dec. 29 when the small plane they were flying failed to return to Ogden-Hinckley Airport, were recovered Saturday from the plane's wreckage in the Great Salt Lake.
The Box Elder County Sheriff's Office reported divers began a recovery operation about 7:30 a.m. Saturday morning in about 20 feet of water near Promontory Point. They were able to recover the bodies of Denny Mansell, 71, the pilot of the plane, and passenger Peter Ellis, 74, at about 11:30 a.m.
According to reports, the men had intended to fly over a re-enactment event at the Golden Spike National Historic Site near Promontory Summit on Dec. 29. They were reported missing after failing to return on time that afternoon. Air and ground searches following the report failed to locate the plane, but teams using sonar discovered the Cessna 172 in the water on the north end of the Great Salt Lake last Saturday. Fog and other poor conditions on the lake had delayed recovery efforts until this weekend.
The Box Elder Sheriff's Office said conditions for divers were good on Saturday, but the operation was "extremely technical" and hampered by the position of the plane, which was on its top on the lake floor. Following the recovery of the victims, further investigation of the crash, and bringing the wreckage up, will fall to the National Transportation Safety Board and the plane's insurance carrier, according to the sheriff's office. They also reported the victims were transported to the Utah Medical Examiner's Office where autopsies will be performed to determine the men's exact cause of death.
Both men were members of the Hill Flying Club and the Cessna they were in was a plane that, according to club president John Malmberg, had been a workhorse for the 100 or so members of the group.
"I’ve flown that airplane a lot," Malmberg said. "Everybody in the club has flown that airplane. It’s been in the club the longest and its been a great, great airplane."
Malmberg said both Mansell, who was flying the plane when it left Ogden on Dec. 29, and Ellis, were pilots. Mansell was a veteran flyer and certified flight instructor. Weather conditions were good on the day the men were flying, but Malmberg, who has flown the area where the crash occurred "hundreds of times" said unexpected wind currents, and flying over water, can create tricky situations for pilots.
"Flying over the lake, particularly when its very calm, can make it difficult to dial-in on depth perception," Malmberg said. "You can make a turn and lose your horizon or fixate on something and then you can’t tell how high you are above the water."
Malmberg said he was flying in the area on the Saturday after the men were reported missing, participating in the search effort, and was reminded how the topography around the Great Salt Lake can contribute to unpredictable conditions.
"We came around the backside of Promontory the day we were looking, and we got bounced around severely on the east side, when the west side was dead calm," Malmberg said. "Even on a clear, sunny day, downdrafts and rotors can come out of seemingly nowhere."
Malmberg said it was the first fatal incident involving club members and aircraft since he'd joined the group some 30 years ago. He said the group has strict safety rules in place, including a requirement that any pilot who has gone 90 days or more without flying must successfully complete a flight review before they take a plane up.
Malmberg said he had attended a memorial service for Mansell earlier Saturday afternoon before news of the recovery had reached the families of the deceased men.
Multiple agencies were involved in the effort including Box Elder Search and Rescue, Utah Department of Public Safety, Civil Air Patrol, Box Elder Communications Center, Utah Division of Natural Resources and Weber County Scuba/Search and Rescue.
This story will be updated.