John Phillips, 07-01-05
Ken O'Connor
James Patrick Leverett

Searchers fail to find plane with 3 tourists

FLIGHTSEEING: Men left Homer airport Friday without a flight plan.

By PETER PORCO Anchorage Daily News, Published: July 5th, 2005

A single-engine plane with three tourists on a flightseeing trip to Alaska was missing Monday, three days after they were last seen taking off from the Homer airport, authorities said.

Searchers from the Alaska Air National Guard and the Civil Air Patrol failed for the second day to find any trace of the men, despite covering a huge area, according to Alaska State Troopers.

The missing men, all from the Carolinas, are licensed pilots who rented a Cessna 207 from a flight service at Merrill Field in Anchorage and who had been staying at a Homer hotel where their luggage was found, troopers said.

John Phillips of Columbia, S.C., a flight instructor who is 63, was apparently piloting the Cessna, said troopers. Also missing were Patrick Leverett of Charleston, S.C., said to be in his late 50s or early 60s, and Ken O'Connor of Charlotte, N.C.

O'Connor is 77, according to The Associated Press.

The men did not file a flight plan and left only a vague idea of where they intended to fly when they took off about 3 p.m. Friday, the National Guard said. That has complicated the search, said Guard spokesman Maj. Mike Haller.

"Homer is the epicenter, and you go 500 miles in any direction from there," Haller said.

Phillips is "very deeply experienced," with 18,000 hours of flight time, and therefore may have felt no need to file a plan, he said.

Monday's search was concentrated north of a line extending from English Bay west across Cook Inlet to Augustine Volcano and in the Tustumena Lake region, said troopers spokesman Greg Wilkinson. There were no reports of the men landing at any area airports, Wilkinson said.

Searchers have not detected an emergency locator transmitter, a device programmed to emit a signal if an aircraft has crashed.

The National Guard was asking the public to help by reporting if they have seen the aircraft since Friday afternoon. The Cessna 207 bears registration number N1621U and is white with black and gold trim.

The plane was manufactured in 1973 and is owned by Aero Tech Flight Service Inc., said Tech. Sgt. Ken Bellamy of the Rescue Coordination Center at Alaska Guard headquarters on Fort Richardson.

A message left at Aero Tech late in the afternoon Monday was not returned.

The date of the men's arrival in Alaska was unavailable Monday. They checked into the Bidarka Best Western hotel in Homer on Wednesday, according to the hotel.

On Friday, the men apparently mentioned to someone refueling the plane that they were going to fly around the area, said trooper David Sherbahn in Anchor Point.

On Sunday morning, John Phillips' wife called troopers from South Carolina to say her husband and his companions had not arrived at their next expected destination.

"They had had some reservations in Southeast Alaska, and she had called down there and learned he had canceled the reservations," said Wilkinson, the troopers spokesman.

Searchers included pilots of all Civil Air Patrol squadrons from Anchorage to Homer, Haller said.

Also searching was an HC-130 Hercules airplane of the Guard's 211th Rescue Squadron with two para-rescue jumpers of the 212th Rescue Squadron aboard.

The U.S. Coast Guard participated in the search Saturday but not Sunday.

Authorities said the general location and the lack of information reminded them of a similar search in November when a pilot, who had deviated from his flight plan, and his single-engine plane went missing for nearly a week.

The pilot, Mike Holman of Wasilla, who flies commercially for United Airlines, had lost his plane to the tide on the beach at a remote bay 30 miles south of Homer. He managed to find a nearby cabin where he stayed for several days.

Searchers combed a large area before the crew of a Coast Guard plane on a training mission found him in good condition.

Wilkinson said the three missing tourists could be alive anywhere, and it could take a while to find them.

"There are a million little coves, a lot of places these guys could be with no radio contact, and the (locator transmitter) could not go off," Wilkinson said.

Searchers stayed airborne Monday night until light began failing around 11 p.m., he said.

Anyone with information about the men or the plane is asked to call the Rescue Coordination Center at 428-7230.

Daily News reporter Peter Porco can be reached at or 257-4582.

Tourists' bodies, plane wreckage found

Daily News staff, Published: July 5th, 2005

Search and rescue teams today found the bodies of three South Carolina men among the wreckage of their rented airplane on a steep mountainside on West Amatuli Island at the mouth of Cook Inlet, Alaska State Troopers said.

John Phillips of Columbia, S.C., a 63-year-old flight instructor, was reportedly piloting the Cessna. Along for the flightseeing trip were Ken O'Connor, 77, of Charlotte, N.C., and James Patrick Leverett of Charleston, S.C., said by a family friend to be 50.

The men were last seen Friday taking off from the Homer airport in a Cessna 207 rented from a flight service at Merrill Field in Anchorage. They were reported missing Sunday by Phillips' wife, who said the men had not arrived at their next destination. Their luggage remained in a Homer hotel room. They had not filed a flight plan.

Family and friends of the three men said O'Connor and Leverett learned to fly from Phillips, an aviation instructor. Just before noon Tuesday, a Coast Guard C130 on a routine flight out of Kodiak spotted the wreckage on West Amatuli in the Barren Islands and notified search teams. A Coast Guard Jayhawk helicopter later attempted to approach the wreckage but couldn't get close enough to identify the plane, said Maj. Mike Haller, a spokesman for the Alaska Air National Guard.

Pararescuers from the guard later climbed down the steep terrain to the crash site, identified the plane by its registration number, and retrieved the three men's bodies late Tuesday afternoon. The bodies are being transported to Anchorage for autopsies. No details about the cause of the crash were immediately available Tuesday.

3 bodies are found in Cessna

ISLAND WRECK: The men, all pilots, were last seen Friday at the Homer airport.

By KATIE PESZNECKER, Anchorage Daily News, Published: July 6th, 2005

Search teams Tuesday found the bodies of three South Carolina men in the wreckage of their rented Cessna on a steep mountainside of a tiny island near the mouth of Cook Inlet, Alaska State Troopers said.

John Phillips of Columbia, S.C., a 63-year-old flight instructor, is believed to have been piloting the plane when it went down on West Amatuli Island, troopers said. Along for the flightseeing trip were Ken O'Connor, 77, of Charlotte, N.C., and James Patrick Leverett, 50, of Mount Pleasant, S.C. Leverett and O'Connor were licensed pilots and had previously taken flying lessons from Phillips, family members and friends said.

The men were last seen Friday afternoon leaving the Homer airport in a 1973 Cessna 207 they had rented from an Anchorage flight service at Merrill Field. They were reported missing Sunday by Phillips' wife, who was alarmed when her husband didn't show up to his expected destination on time, troopers said.

Searchers from the Alaska State Troopers, the Alaska Air National Guard, the Civil Air Patrol and the U.S. Coast Guard quickly assembled and combed a 500-mile area around Homer by sea and air.

"We had a lot of resources on it really fast," said Maj. Mike Haller, a National Guard spokesman. Teams kept hoping for a rescue "right up to the end. You always assume people are alive and somehow surviving. This state is absolutely legendary with stories of people who survived in situations where it shouldn't have happened but it did."

Late Tuesday afternoon, before the crashed airplane was confirmed as belonging to the men, their family members and friends held out hope.

"I feel confident that they're alive somewhere, I really, really do," said Donna McLaulin, an old friend of Leverett's who answered his phone Tuesday. "We keep praying. Everybody's praying for him. He has a big network of friends and colleagues."

Leverett in 1996 started working as a psychology professor at the Citadel, a South Carolina military academy. He also ran a private psychology practice, McLaulin said.

He was divorced and shared custody of his 9-year-old son, Walker. During his trip, McLaulin was dog-sitting Leverett's beagle, Sammy.

She described Leverett as an outdoorsman and hunter who "loves flying, and he was very excited about the trip, all the flying he was doing."

Relatives and friends of the three men said O'Connor and Leverett learned to fly from Phillips. A freelance aviation instructor, Phillips learned to fly in the military and had been a fighter pilot in Vietnam, said his friend, Robert Price, an attorney in Columbia, S.C.

"It was his love," Price said. "And he was good at it."

Phillips, who was retired from the insurance business, had two children. One had preceded him in death, Price said. His son and wife were on their way to Alaska on Tuesday.

Family members of Leverett and O'Connor were already here, troopers said. O'Connor, a retired anesthesiologist, practiced medicine in Camden, S.C., and had four adult daughters, according to family members reached by phone Tuesday. It was his first trip to Alaska.

It is unclear when the men arrived in Alaska, but they checked into a Homer hotel a week ago. During a refueling at the Homer airport Friday, they said they planned to take a short flight around the Kenai Peninsula area, troopers said. They left around 3 p.m.

National Weather Service officials in Anchorage said the weather at the time was cloudy with a light breeze and with visibility of about 10 miles.

Haller said Phillips had logged some 18,000 hours of flight time.

But, like roughly three out of four private pilots of small planes, "he didn't file a flight plan," Haller said. "But it's not a requirement. Gosh. I wish it was."

The lack of a flight plan always complicates a search effort, said Michael Coffing, commander of the Homer squadron for the Civil Air Patrol.

"I can't overemphasize that pilots need to let people know where they're going when they take off," Coffing said. "That's really what the big message is when they take off."

Crews scoured a 500-mile area surrounding Homer beginning Sunday. A check at the Homer hotel where the three had been staying revealed their luggage still there. Pilots flying over the area detected no emergency locator signals.

A Coast Guard C-130 on a scheduled flight from Kodiak to the Homer area Tuesday detoured slightly to fly over the Barren Islands and check there.

Just before noon, the C-130 crew spotted a crash site on a steep, severe incline on the north face of the 1,360-foot, southernmost peak of West Amatuli. The rocky island is partially covered in grass and tussocks, and uninhabited save for tufted puffins and other seabirds.

From the C-130's altitude and speed, it was impossible to say whether the crash was new, Haller said.

"There are thousands upon thousands of airplanes that have accumulated over the years," he said. "Unlike cars, they're not towed away. They just kind of sit there and mold."

The Kodiak Coast Guard next sent a Jayhawk helicopter for a closer look. But even that more maneuverable craft couldn't get near enough to see a tail number or any passengers.

So the guard dispatched a Pave Hawk helicopter from Kulis Air National Guard Base in Anchorage. Haller didn't know whether the Pave Hawk landed on West Amatuli or whether it lowered pararescuers to the mountain. They had to descend several hundred feet to the crash site, he said.

The pararescuers identified the plane by its registration number and retrieved the three bodies late Tuesday afternoon. Details about the wreck and the men's injuries were not immediately available. The bodies were brought back to Anchorage for autopsies, scheduled for later this week, Haller said.

Daily News reporter Katie Pesznecker can be reached at