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Queries linger in plane crash

Kris Heidinger remained surprised Wednesday by the discovery Tuesday of a missing pilot's body in a small lake on her family's farm north of Kulm, N.D.

Kris Heidinger remained surprised Wednesday by the discovery Tuesday of a missing pilot's body in a small lake on her family's farm north of Kulm, N.D.

Last weekend, while she stood on a hill searching for a lost cow, Heidinger gave the big slough a good hard look because she had heard Bob Nelson and his Piper Cherokee may have crashed somewhere in the area.

She saw nothing.

"It kind of gives you a pit in your stomach. We've been all around there and didn't even know it (the plane) was there," Heidinger said.

Mick Erickson of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was driving a swamp boat when he discovered Nelson's body on the south shore of the lake about 2:30 p.m. Tuesday.

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Erickson was one of more than a dozen people who fanned out across 50 square miles to check windbreaks and lakes for Nelson's plane, which disappeared Aug. 24.

The search was concentrated north of Kulm in an area where Nelson's plane was last seen on radar. Water and trees were the focus of Tuesday's hunt because weeks of air searches turned up no signs of wreckage.

It was not a plane but rather Nelson's remains that Erickson found as he cruised about 30 feet from the lake's shore.

"The first thing I saw was the body," Erickson said Wednesday.

He said the job of finding Nelson was not a pleasant one but it had to be done.

"If it was my family, I would certainly want people to be helping close the whole issue," Erickson said.

But questions remain, including why the plane crashed.

Agents from the Federal Aviation Administration surveyed the scene Wednesday along with officials from the Logan and LaMoure County sheriff's departments, said Pete Fendt, president of the Valley Water Rescue dive group and the coordinator of Tuesday's successful search.

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While some plane parts have been found, the aircraft remains submerged, and its exact location still must be determined, said Fendt, whose group plans a dive today to assess the plane's location and whether it can be recovered.

Any parts raised will be examined in an effort to determine what caused the crash, said Andrew Todd Fox, an air safety investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board in Chicago, the agency that investigates all civil aviation crashes.

Fox said it will take about six months to collect data on the crash, after which he will write a report. He said planes the size of Nelson's do not carry flight recorders, also known as black boxes.

Ultimately, Fox said, a five-member board will issue conclusions based on his report.

Storms were reported in the Kulm area around the time the plane disappeared from radar screens.

Fox said all factors will be looked at, including "airplane data and pilot data," adding, "We're definitely looking to the weather situation."

Given the large number of sloughs and lakes in the area, Heidinger said it was a wonder Nelson was found.

"People say, 'Why didn't they check water? Well, they've never been out in this area. They don't know there are sloughs in every corner.

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"If they hadn't been in there with that airboat, I just really feel they still wouldn't know where he (Nelson) was," Heidinger said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555

I'm a reporter and a photographer and sometimes I create videos to go with my stories.

I graduated from Minnesota State University Moorhead and in my time with The Forum I have covered a number of beats, from cops and courts to business and education.

I've also written about UFOs, ghosts, dinosaur bones and the planet Pluto.

You may reach me by phone at 701-241-5555, or by email at dolson@forumcomm.com
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