WHIDBEY ISLAND — After a fruitless day of searching by air and water, the Coast Guard suspended its search Monday for a missing floatplane with 10 people aboard that plunged into Puget Sound near Whidbey Island and sank in the deep, cold waters of Mutiny Bay.

Victims of Whidbey Island floatplane crash identified

Hours later, the family of three of those presumed dead identified them as renowned Washington vintner Ross Andrew Mickel, the founder of the Eastside-based Ross Andrew Winery; his wife, Lauren Hilty; and their 22-month-old son, Remy.

Also aboard the plane, according to The Spokesman-Review, was Spokane civil rights activist Sandy Williams, 60, who founded a community center and Black newspaper in that city.

U.S. Coast Guard personnel seen through heatwaves over the waters of Mutiny Bay search the shore on the west side of Whidbey Island, Monday late morning, Sept. 5, 2022 after Sunday’s fatal floatplane crash.

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“This is a loss to the whole community, not just the Black community,” Spokane City Councilmember Betsy Wilkerson told The Spokesman-Review.

Searchers have recovered only a single body, a woman’s, but otherwise have found few traces of the single-engine de Havilland Canada DHC-3 Turbine Otter that disappeared from radar Sunday around 3 p.m. The plane, owned by the Renton-based charter service Northwest Seaplanes and operated by Friday Harbor Seaplanes, was traveling from Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands to Renton.

“We are deeply saddened and beyond devastated at the loss of our beloved Ross Mickel, Lauren Hilty, Remy and their unborn baby boy, Luca,” read a statement issued Monday night by the Mickel and Hilty families. “Our collective grief is unimaginable.” The statement went on to express gratitude to the searchers and other friends and supporters.

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The Coast Guard recovered several large pieces of aluminum and smaller pieces of debris smelling of fuel, but “very little” of the actual plane had been found as of midday Monday, said Scott Giard, search and rescue program director for the Coast Guard in the Pacific Northwest region.

Both the Coast Guard and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife sent divers to the island, and the Coast Guard will use an underwater drone to try to find the wreckage and come up with a plan to retrieve any remains from the fuselage.

Officials believe the wreckage is on the seafloor, which is between 150 and 200 feet deep in that area.

Giard said the decision to suspend an active search and rescue mission was based on how long someone could survive in those waters, where the water temperature Monday was about 60 degrees. The Coast Guard estimates a person can survive six hours in 60-degree water.

He said next of kin were notified. The Coast Guard expects to release the names of those aboard early Tuesday.

The Coast Guard dispatched two cutters, the Osprey and Blue Shark, a 45-foot response boat, an MH-65 Dolphin helicopter from Coast Guard Station Port Angeles and a C-27J fixed-wing search aircraft from Air Station Sacramento, California. Officials said the air assets completed 26 search sorties over nearly 2,100 square nautical miles of the Puget Sound off the southwest portion of Whidbey Island, located roughly 80 miles north of Seattle.

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Little information on the cause or circumstances of the crash was available. The pilot did not report trouble or issue a mayday, and the plane just disappeared from flight-control radar screens. Officials hope the search will turn up evidence that might explain how and why the plane went into the water.

Sunrise on Whidbey was met Monday with more than a dozen regular fishermen lining the beach next to Bush Point Wharf, a former resort town, in waders and lawn chairs.

About 5 miles south, on Frank Robinson Beach, families walked and launched kayaks as others gathered to watch the two Coast Guard cutters run search patterns on Mutiny Bay and nearby Useless Bay, where the woman’s body was retrieved Sunday.

By midday, the search was called off and officials briefed more than 60 friends and relatives of the missing.

“It is always difficult when it comes time to make a decision to stop searching,” said Capt. Daniel Broadhurst, Incident Management Branch Chief for the 13th Coast Guard District. “The hearts of all the first responders go out to those who lost a family member, a loved one or a friend in the crash.”

The National Transportation Safety Board, or NTSB, activated a seven-member “Go” Team to respond to the crash.

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“We anticipate that there will be continued debris and other things washing up,” said Giard, who urged coastal dwellers, residents and tourists to report any debris that comes ashore.

“We’d rather respond to 20 calls that don’t yield anything than miss one that could have the evidence we need to figure out what happened or where someone is,” he added.

“Debris is very finicky with not having a clear video or pictures of the actual crash itself and not knowing how grandiose or extravagant the actual damage was when it hit the water,” Giard said. “It really gives us no idea whether the aircraft completely broke up or maybe if there is a large piece of fuselage underneath the water.”

One resident of Bush Point gave the Coast Guard a saucer-sized piece of foam that reeked of fuel. Later, a piece of metal debris was found near the decrepit wharf of the former resort.

On other parts of the island, officials chased leads to try to — quite literally — piece together what happened to the plane.

In the water, rescuers found a seat from the plane, stray life jackets, sheets of aluminum, a page from some sort of log including the plane’s tail number.

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Before plunging into Mutiny Bay off Whidbey Island, the DHC-3 Otter floatplane appeared to be in control for the first 18 minutes of its flight from Friday Harbor to Renton, according to Kathleen Bangs, an aviation expert and former seaplane pilot. The plane then apparently lost altitude fast, at a rate of thousands of feet per minute, she said.

Bangs stressed that her opinion was personal and separate from her employment as spokesperson for Flight Aware — a company that tracks the world’s air traffic in real-time.

Flight Aware posted this flight track of the Otter floatplane showing where it was lost.

The plane was flying at around 600 feet, at a speed of roughly 140 miles per hour, which means its plunge into Puget Sound occurred in just seconds.

“When you see something like that, you think, ‘Could it have been a collision with something, could it have been pilot incapacitation, or could it have been intentional?’ ” Bangs said. “Once you get those out of the way, the thing I’d be looking at is the age of the airplane.”

The DHC-3 is a solid craft with a good reputation, she said, but it was built in the 1960s. Federal Aviation Administration data shows the plane with the tail number that crashed Sunday was built in 1967. Compounding the stress of age is the saltwater environment in which the plane operates, which can hasten corrosion.

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Bangs is skeptical the issue was with the engine; a pilot in a seaplane could maneuver the plane toward an emergency landing more slowly if the problem was a power loss.

“They were by no means under control,” she said.

The plane’s owner, Northwest Seaplanes of Renton, released a short statement Monday afternoon on Facebook.

“The team at Northwest Seaplanes is heartbroken,” the statement read. “We don’t know any details yet regarding the cause of the accident.”

Northwest Seaplanes is a charter service located in Renton. Its sister company, Friday Harbor Seaplanes, was operating Sunday’s flight from Friday Harbor to Renton.

Court records show Northwest Seaplanes previously settled a lawsuit involving a crash that killed a toddler, court records show. However, later rulings determined the company’s actions had not caused the crash.

The lawsuit stemmed from an accident on June 1, 2010, where a single-engine Cessna crashed into a vacant building on takeoff from an airport in Anchorage, Alaska.

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The plane was piloted by Preston Cavner, whose two sons and wife and a babysitter were on board. One of the children, 4-year-old Myles Cavner, died in the crash, and everyone else on board was injured.

The Cavner family sued the manufacturer of the plane’s engine as well as another company and Northwest Seaplanes, which had conducted inspections of the plane and replaced engine components, but failed to note metal burrs accumulating in the engine that could damage its performance, according to court records.

Northwest Seaplanes struck an unspecified settlement with the Cavners before the lawsuit went to trial. Later, the trial court and the Washington State Court of Appeals both ruled that Northwest Seaplanes’ actions had not caused the crash, court records show.

Federal transportation records indicate at least 14 fatal crashes have been reported involving the de Havilland DHC-3 Otter floatplane. The NTSB reports it has investigated 59 crashes involving that plane, including eight fatal crashes that killed a total of 18 people between 1975 and August 2004.

Six of those crashes happened in Alaska, with others in Puerto Rico and Texas.

The NTSB data reflects only closed investigations. The Associated Press reports at least six more fatal accidents in the U.S. involving that model in the intervening years.

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Giard, the Coast Guard search and rescue spokesperson, said the Otter on Sunday was being tracked by its owner, who had tried to contact the pilot by radio as the plane veered slightly toward Port Townsend and then stopped tracking. No contact was made.

Passengers on another seaplane in the air at roughly the same time and in the same general area as the missing Otter reported a turbulent flight.

Sonora Jha took off in a seaplane from Cortes Island, B.C., early Sunday afternoon, traveling south to Kenmore, where she landed just after 3 p.m.

Jha said the flight was rough from the start, with winds and a forecast showing a chance of thunderstorms. The flight company changed the passengers’ pickup point off Cortes Island at the last minute because of choppy waters. When the plane took to the air, it lurched and dipped throughout the flight, Jha recalled. An inexperienced seaplane passenger, she posted a “half-playful” photo of the flight on social media, noting her nerves in the air.

The other passengers were calm, she said. Her friend even nodded off. They reassured her that their pilot had 25 years of experience.

“The pilot looked relaxed,” she said.

When she heard about the crash later in the day, Jha was shocked. She took down her social media post out of respect and is now questioning whether she’ll ever fly a floatplane again.

“I’m really heartbroken,” she said.

Seattle Times staff reporters Patrick Malone, Anna Patrick, David Kroman and news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.