FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) - A group of river rafters in search of old mining equipment on a hike at the Grand Canyon came across something unexpected during a recent trip: the wreckage of a small aircraft with bones scattered nearby.
John Weisheit was with several people who discovered the wreckage earlier this month as they ventured from a seldom-used campsite off the Colorado River. A technical team reached the site, about 30 miles northwest of Grand Canyon Village, over the weekend and removed the reddish aircraft that stuck between two boulders and naturally concealed.
"It was so smashed, so compressed that it was really hard to find an actual skeleton, but then we did notice vertebrae in the cockpit," Weisheit told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
The size and color of the aircraft match one that missing at the park in 2011, Grand Canyon National Park spokeswoman Emily Davis said.
That cherry red RV-6 homebuilt plane was piloted by Joseph Radford of Glendale. Helicopters flew 2,000 air miles in a 600 square-mile area looking for Radford and his plane after an emergency locator signal was detected at the park but never found any visual signs of a crash site. The Civil Air Patrol helped search, and the National Park Service asked hikers and river runners to be on the lookout.
Davis said the park is awaiting word from the Coconino County Medical Examiner's Office on exact identification of the remains but that could take several months. The National Transportation Safety Board will investigate the cause of the crash.
The NTSB listed the cause of Radford's crash as undetermined in a late 2011 report that indicated he likely crashed intentionally. The report, based on interviews with the Glendale Police Department and Radford's family and friends, said he had an argument with his wife the morning of March 11, 2011 and later told a girlfriend that he had a plan to kill himself. Radford turned off his radio signal about a minute after taking off from the airport in Tusayan, the report said.
A few days after his plane was reported missing, the girlfriend received a package with a letter that referred to Radford in the past tense, the NTSB said.
Tens of thousands of people each year float by Emerald Camp where Weisheit and his group stayed the night on May 8, knowing a more popular site downriver was full. Weisheit said he was curious to find out if there was any equipment in the area from old mines so he proposed a difficult loop hike up large boulders and openings in the cliff. Someone else in the group spotted the wreckage and called the others over.
Weisheit said the engine block and cockpit were smashed in a huge heap of metal, and the tail and fuselage were scattered in about a hundred pieces. The motor was largely intact, he said.
"It was obvious he wasn't trying to do a safe landing," he said. "Whatever it was, it either was deliberate or he ran out of gas and lost control."
The group spent about a half-hour looking over the site, finding work gloves and an aluminum clipboard that it then stashed under a rock to keep it dry in the rain, Weisheit said. Four days later, the group stopped a National Park Service group on a research trip on the river and told of the discovery.
"It was really sad," Weisheit said. "We were compelled to think about the family and we thought it would be in their best interest to know the wreckage was found and maybe it could provide some closure."
He was a commercial pilot with ratings in airplanes, rotorcraft, and gliders. He also held a flight instructor certificate in each of the classes.