High-tech equipment and safety gear keep divers safe during ongoing plane crash search

High-tech equipment and safety gear keep divers safe during ongoing plane crash search

January 10th, 2019 by Ben Benton in Local Regional News

A search and rescue inflatable return to the ramp at the Possum Creek ramp on Chickamauga Lake Tuesday as others search for wreckage from a Monday plane crash that is believed to be in 30-50 feet of water in the main channel near Soddy-Daisy.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

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Forensic divers and crews searching for a missing pilot and his small plane that went down Monday are using high-tech equipment to scan the bottom of the Chickamauga Reservoir east of Soddy-Daisy.

In the search's third day, the area downstream of Camp Vesper Point on Wednesday was about 35 to 45 feet deep and visibility was nil near the muddy bottom where the silt is like powder, said John Scruggs, one of 10 members of the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office's forensic dive team and the team's trainer.

On behalf of the family of Capt. Frank W Davey, USMC (ret)

We were notified by the Hamilton County Sheriff's Department on Monday January 7th, 2019 that a plane resembling the one owned by Capt. Davey was seen crashing into the Chickamauga Creek located near Hobo Bluff/ Camp Vesper Point in Soddy Daisy around 1:30 PM EDT, as called in from a 911 call logged at 1:48 PM EDT. The initial responders on site were Sale Creek Volunteer Fire Department, Dallas Bay Volunteer Fire Department and STARS. From the debris it was confirmed the plane belonged to Capt. Davey. The family has not made a formal announcement until the search is complete. Frank's son Stuart and some friends have been searching the area in addition to the local responders. Capt. Davey was an experienced pilot with both military and civilian flight hours spanning his adult lifetime. We suspect the wind shear may have played a part in the plane being blown off course, due to the weather patterns at the time of the accident, but we will have to wait for the formal investigation to confirm. Frank had called several of his friends to go flying on Monday so there is a possibility another passenger(s) may have been on board, at this point we cannot confirm. We wish to express our gratitude for your patience as we come to grips with the apparent loss of a beloved husband, father and friend.

Search crews have been out since Monday afternoon seeking the pilot and the Bellanca single-engine, fixed-wing aircraft now listed as missing in an Aviation Safety Network database after going down in the lake Monday.

Officials haven't identified the victim or said whether more people were on board, but the family has identified the man as 68-year-old Soddy-Daisy resident Frank Davey, a retired U.S. Marine Corps captain. There was a possibility that another person was with Davey when the plane crashed, according to the family's statement.

Forensic divers, meanwhile, returned to the water a little after 11 a.m. on Wednesday to resume searching.

The work is extremely dangerous for divers because of high volumes of water from recent rains and cold temperatures at the bottom, officials said. They are working to keep searchers as safe as possible.

Scruggs, who was certified as a diver in 1986 and has more than 6,000 dives under his belt, said crews in a boat use a tow-behind, side-scan sonar to perform an initial search of the lake bottom, and if anything unusual appears a remotely operated vehicle armed with lights, a video camera and side-scan sonar is submerged to take a closer look, Scruggs said.

If more "interesting" images are found by the remote, then divers would search the area, he said.

"With the water conditions now, it's not an easy operation. Water flows are very high," Scruggs said.

The Tennessee Valley Authority reduced the flow of water into the Chickamauga Reservoir on Tuesday but rains have been ongoing recently. On Wednesday morning, Scruggs said TVA was reporting flood conditions and a flow of about 105,000 cubic feet of water per second. The comfortable flow level for divers in the river is between 50,000 and 60,000 cubic feet per second, Scruggs said. Not only does the heavy flow create danger, it can carry items downstream.

When search conditions allow, "we either send a scuba diver down with a dry suit or we send him down in a hard hat," Scruggs said, referring to the heavy metal diver's helm that somewhat resembles an astronaut helmet. The hard hat has capabilities that allow the diver to communicate with others and is supplied air through a line from the surface.

Since visibility is near zero, Scruggs said, divers must feel their way along and take turns to avoid being exposed to cold temperatures for too long.

With the water temperature around 45 degrees, divers must surface after an hour to an hour and 15 minutes to warm up and rest for up to three hours or more, Scruggs said. He said team members undergo monthly and annual training on the equipment.

Officials declined to talk about what kind of debris or parts have been found, so far.

"Because it is an active investigation, all we've located at this time is just parts of the airplane," sheriff's office spokesman Matt Lea said Wednesday, describing what was discovered as debris and "small pieces of the fuselage." He said officials will notify the public when the bulk of the aircraft is found.

He added that community members have been very supportive, offering their help, but officials are urging people to stay away from the search area to keep crews as safe as possible. He said authorities also are staying in close contact with the victim's family.

According to Times Free Press archives and his LinkedIn profile, Davey previously worked as an air traffic controller for the Federal Aviation Administration, although that information was not verifiable through federal records.

National Transportation Safety Board records show the plane was built in 1971 and had no previous record of incidents or accidents. The craft's last registered flight plan shows Frank Davey flew from Darlington, South Carolina, to Chattanooga on Nov. 3. The Jan. 7 flight was not logged.

In an email to its customers, Hixson Aviation at Dallas Bay Skypark said the missing aircraft was based out of Dallas Bay with possibly two people on board.

An FAA spokesman told the Times Free Press on Tuesday that the Chattanooga air traffic control tower got a phone call Monday from a Hamilton County 911 dispatcher who had received several reports of an explosion followed by an aircraft possibly crashing into a wooded area.

The plane was also spotted by residents on the ground in the area who described hearing an explosion or seeing the plane heading toward the water or even spiraling down into the lake.

Search operations are being staged at the Possum Creek RV Park and Campground.

The NTSB has not yet joined the investigation, thanks to the federal government shutdown. Lea said the sheriff's office, at present, is the investigating agency.

"We are coordinating our efforts with them and we are giving them the details of our investigation as it unfolds and we will turn over our findings to them," Lea said.

Thursday's forecast calls for colder weather. According to WRCB-TV Channel 3's forecast, temperatures dropped into the 20s overnight with a high for Thursday predicted in the lower 40s teamed up with a north wind, adding to the chill.

Sheriff's office officials asked anyone who thinks they've found a piece of the plane to contact the sheriff's office at 423-622-0022.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.