Federal Aviation Administration officials won’t go so far as to say the Jan. 23 emergency call to an air traffic controller reporting a downed plane was a sham, but they will say they’ve traced the 30-minute SOS to a handheld transceiver operated by someone in downtown Los Altos. At least, that’s what ABC7 News reported Jan. 26.
But that’s news to Los Altos Police Capt. Andy Galea, who said the department hasn’t received notification from any federal agency – FAA, FBI or otherwise – for assistance.
It’s also news to Sgt. Rick Sung of the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department, who was told the call for help could not be traced.
Sung said sheriffs were deployed for a search-and-rescue mission after the Civil Air Patrol reported a caller claimed to be an injured passenger in a downed plane in the mountains near Stanford University. Several county agencies from San Mateo and Santa Cruz, as well as Santa Clara, conducted a massive ground-and-air search, suspended approximately noon the following day as suspicions mounted that the call might not have been authentic.
“There’s no definitive evidence that this call was a hoax,” Sung said, “and we cannot say there is not a downed airplane.”
Hobby pilot Jay Ribera was in the control tower at the Palo Alto Airport when the distress call came in Sunday. It was first picked up by the Coast Guard, he said.
The SOS was dispatched over the emergency response channel by a caller who claimed to be a passenger in a blue and white, high-wing aircraft that had crashed in the mountains north of Stanford.
“‘The pilot is unconscious and I think I have a broken leg,’” Ribera reported the caller said, claiming to be outside of the plane.
But there are no mountains north of Stanford – misinformation that could be attributable to shock or trauma, Ribera said – though inconsistencies continued to surface. The caller couldn’t read the plane’s registration number, knew to call for help on channel 121.5 FM, but didn’t know how to turn on the transponder, reported being in a low valley on a high cliff and – another red flag – there was no signal from the plane’s emergency locator transmitter.
“They’re not required, but 99 percent of planes have them,” Ribera said of the transmitters designed to signal on impact.
A pilot and flight instructor himself, West Valley Flying Club Information Officer Richard Terrill was also at the Palo Alto Airport that day.Terrill said a massive air search by airplanes, helicopters and Airship Venture’s Zeppelin, “Eureka,” based at Moffett Field, was launched to search for wreckage or establish a line of sight with the plane’s emergency transmitter.
“It’s an old technology, but it works,” he said.
No one picked up a signal or signs of wreckage – smoke, sheared trees or downed power lines – and no pilots or planes were reported missing from any airports.
The caller also said the plane left from Morgan Hill for the Bay Area earlier that day, but a source from South County Airport, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said no planes or pilots were missing.
“I accounted for all the planes and called the other two (airports),” the source said – Frazier Lake Airpark and Hollister Municipal. No planes or pilots were missing.
A battalion chief from the Santa Clara County Fire Department established an incident command center at the Monte Vista fire station, though firefighters and equipment weren’t deployed, according to Mike Sanders, emergency services coordinator.
“Bottom line … (the call) was never really substantiated,” he said. “If there was an accident, we would have responded right away.”
Because the call for help lasted for more than 30 minutes – “One-half an hour is forever in terms of radio waves,” Terrill said – authorities were probably able to approximate the source of the call by triangulating the signal from the caller, the Hayward tower and a pilot or another control tower in the area receiving a strong signal.
If the calling device were a cell phone, Terrill said, authorities could have pinpointed the caller’s exact location within 24 seconds, as well as the cell-phone’s owner.
Because no plane crash has been discovered, which precludes investigation by the FAA or the National Transportation Safety Board, that doesn’t mean some agency isn’t searching for a prankster.
“They always have to tell someone else,” Terrill said of wrongdoers. “Somebody is out there waiting for someone else to spill the beans. That’s probably the phase of investigation they’re in.”