Plane takes off from Two Rock ranch without pilot
Authorities fail to find craft, say it likely crashed after running out of fuel; search continues today
December 27, 2001
By CECILIA M. VEGA and JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
An unmanned airplane broke free from its moorings Wednesday while the pilot was working on it, taking off from a Two Rock ranch and flying over southern Sonoma County without a pilot for at least two hours.
Authorities concluded the single-engine airplane eventually crashed, but a search for the wreckage was suspended because of darkness.
“This will be in the aviation history books,” said Walt Smith, regional coordinator for the Federal Aviation Administration.
“It’s pretty wild,” he said. “We’re all shaking our heads. We thought we’d heard everything.”
The search began shortly after 3 p.m. when Paul Clary III of San Rafael called 911 to report that his airplane had taken off from his son’s Middle Two Rock Road ranch with no one aboard and enough fuel to fly for two hours.
Clary, 67, said he was fixing a flooded engine when the plane broke free from its moorings.
“It’s a nightmare,” he said while waiting to see if authorities could locate his plane before it crashed.
Clary said he had owned the plane, a 1946 Aeronca Champion, for about six years.
Sonoma County sheriff’s deputies dispatched a helicopter to find the pilotless plane, but after about four hours of searching they gave up without ever seeing the yellow aircraft for themselves.
CHP also dispatched an aircraft, and some private planes may have joined the search.
Unconfirmed reports sent them to Cotati, the Sonoma Mountain area and back to Two Rock, but Sheriff’s Sgt. Kevin Scanlon said the sightings all turned out to be false.
Reports to the Sheriff’s Department also said an emergency locator signal was detected, and that the plane landed four miles east of Petaluma.
But authorities conducted both ground and aerial searches of the area and came back empty-handed.
Authorities plan to resume the search for the fallen aircraft early today.
“It certainly is down someplace and the nice thing about Sonoma County is it is rural in certain areas,” Smith said, adding the situation could have been worse had the plane come down in a populated area.
Authorities at one point became so concerned with the plane’s whereabouts that they notified the county’s Office of Emergency Services, which sent out emergency broadcasts on local radio airwaves to warn the public of the potential danger.
“We’ve all been in the business for a while and this a fairly new one for us,” Scanlon said.
On Wednesday afternoon, sitting grim-faced and clutching a cellphone, Clary, a San Francisco veterinarian, said he has flown planes for recreation since about 1951.
He flew in from Novato for a quick trip to his son’s ranch and had been there for about 10 minutes before the incident began to unfold.
He stopped the plane after landing it and when he went to start it again, he said the engine flooded.
When he turned the propeller to try to start it, the engine turned over and because the throttle was forward and on high, the plane moved.
“It’s my fault. The throttle shouldn’t have been forward,” he said.
Clary and his son chased the plane north in their minivan until “we just lost sight of it,” said Paul Clary IV.
They were able to keep it in sight for no longer than five or 10 minutes.
“It’s a disaster,” the younger Clary said.
Scanlon said witnesses last saw the plane climbing in the air and guessed it likely reached at least 5,000 feet. Based on the amount of fuel in its tank, the plane’s weight and the weather, authorities believe it probably headed in a northeastern direction.
“We know it ran out of fuel before darkness came,” Smith said.
The 1,240-pound plane has two seats. It is made of fibers and canvas and was designed in the late 1930s or early 1940s. It was manufactured for about 20 years and was sold mostly for recreational flying.
While it’s hard to believe the plane could take off by itself and fly without a pilot for at least two hours, it could – technically – be possible, Smith said.
“If the control services were trimmed or set properly, it could in fact fly itself,” he said.
Smith said that while there was some discussion about using military aircraft to locate and intercept the plane, there never was any talk of having it shot down.
FAA inspectors will begin their investigation into the missing plane today.
“I’m sure there’s going to be some kind of implication toward the pilot,” he said. “We’ll just have to see what went wrong.”