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Body of missing pilot recovered from plane wreckage in Minnesota state forest

Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald The wreckage of Andrew Lindberg's Piper Cherokee rests in a heavily wooded area 22 miles east and slightly south of Mahnomen Wednesday.1 / 2
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The body of Andrew Lindberg was recovered Wednesday from the wreckage of his Piper Cherokee in a hilly, remote and roadless wooded area on the White Earth Indian Reservation. It was taken to Hibbing, Minn., for an autopsy.

The crash site is about 4½ miles east and two miles south of Naytahwaush, Minn., or about 22 miles east and slightly south of Mahnomen in the northwestern corner of South LaPrairie Township in Clearwater County.

Guided by a helicopter hovering over it, deputies from Clearwater and Mahnomen counties reached the plane Wednesday morning on foot and eventually by all-terrain vehicle after a trail was cut. It was clear Lindberg had died on impact, said Clearwater County Sheriff Mike Erickson, who spent Tuesday night near the site at a command center on a logging road in the White Earth State Forest.

The crash site is on state forest land within the White Earth reservation, with no homes within miles on all sides. Searchers had to use logging equipment to cut a trail more than two miles winding through the alder, poplar and pine forest just to get all-terrain vehicles to the site. One of the logging tractors got stuck in the muddy, hilly terrain, and White Earth Tribal conservation officers finished the trail by hand with chainsaws in a furious rush Wednesday morning.

Upwards of 50 officers from several law enforcement agencies worked Wednesday to recover Lindberg's body, including deputies from Clearwater, Mahnomen and Becker counties, police from Bagley, Mahnomen, Clearwater, White Earth Tribal police, state Department of Natural Resources people, the State Patrol, tribal conservation officers, state foresters, ambulance crews from Clearwater County and Naytahwaush all worked the scene.

National Transportation Safety Board officials were traveling to the site Wednesday to begin investigating.

Lindberg, 32, was a new pilot who was flying Friday night from Lakeville, Minn., south of the Twin Cities, to his hometown of Hallock, Minn., to deer hunt with his family, which farms near Kennedy.

He had made the same flight a week earlier for the deer season opener, said his uncle, the Rev. Bob Griggs of Wadena.

Family on scene

Lindberg's parents, Bill and Charli, and his younger brother, John, arrived at the area near the crash site about 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, as soon as they got word a crashed plane had been spotted from the air that afternoon by a private pilot.

John Lindberg works at Met Life in the Twin Cities, as did Andrew. He and four friends from Met Life headed into the woods Tuesday night to try to find the plane wreckage, Sheriff Erickson said.

"They charged right past us," he said, of his attempt to stop the family search effort. "But they knew what they were doing in the woods." Their obvious and understandable concern was the hope of rescuing Andrew, Erickson said.

The sheriff assigned two deputies to accompany the men, and the group of seven spent the night walking through the dark woods, at one point building a fire to stay warm. They came within about 100 yards of the plane site but didn't find it.

Lindberg's parents, Andrew's new wife, Kate, and Griggs spent the night nearby, hoping against hope, Griggs said.

Plane found

By about 8 a.m. Wednesday, a Minnesota State Patrol helicopter located the wreckage from the air and guided law enforcement searchers on foot to the site.

The plane came down at an apparently very steep angle into the top of a small knoll in the middle of the trackless state forest, not far from a nameless pond.

The white Piper, with green and yellow stripes, had been reduced to some remains of twisted metal, with the tail section partly wrapped around a small tree that appeared to have sliced the plane apart. One wing appeared bent back against the rear fuselage, the other in two pieces a few feet from the main wreckage on the leafy forest floor.

The engine had plowed up some earth, and the landing gear, with the rubber of the tire burned off, pointed upward over the engine. Scorched metal and engine, leaves and a blackened tree stump 30 feet from the plane showed an apparent spray of burning fuel and a fire that didn't go far in the damp woods but burned much of the plane's interior.

Police tape surrounded the plane, which was guarded by White Earth Tribal Police overnight again while a plan is developed to get it out, officers said.

Dr. Rudd Thabes, Clearwater County coroner, left the scene about 1:45 p.m. in a van with Lindberg's body, which had been carried out of the woods on a trailer pulled by an ATV, officials said. The body was taken to Hibbing for an autopsy, standard procedure for Clearwater County.

Since Saturday morning, the state's Civil Air Patrol had mounted its largest air search in recent memory for Lindberg. More than 400 volunteers took part in the four-day search, CAP officials said.

Lindberg's last contact was a text message Friday night to his father waiting at the Hallock airport, saying he was over Staples at about 6:30 p.m. The text message bounced off a cell tower between Staples and Wadena, on what would be a pretty straight line between Lakeville and Hallock, CAP officials said.

The weather in the Staples area Friday night was not good flying weather, CAP officials said, with low-hanging clouds and rain reported.

Wreckage spotted

Tom Hill, a pilot from Walker, Minn., first spotted the wreckage Tuesday. A mechanic with the Cass County, Minn., Highway Department, he took a day off to fly his own Cessna 172 Tuesday afternoon across the area.

Hill had gone up shortly after noon Tuesday, with a friend who works for Mahnomen County, flying up to Hallock and back, and was returning to Walker when he spotted the wreckage.

It was about 4:30 p.m. when he saw the tail of plane sticking out of a wooded site from an altitude of about 3,000 feet.

"I circled back around two or three times and then flew lower, about 50 feet off the treetops," Hill said, confirming it was a wrecked plane.

He could see no damage to surrounding trees, which with the steep angle of the tail in the air, made it appear the Piper had nosedived into the wooded ground. He could see a small burned area around the plane.

The crash site was so small and obscure, Hill said, that if he had been even 100 feet off to one side or the other, he never would have spotted it.

He fixed GPS coordinates on the site at 4:34 p.m. and contacted federal aviation officials in the Twin Cities about his find, Hill said.

He returned to Mahnomen, picked up Chief Deputy Paul Brehm, and 10 gallons of gas, and returned to the crash site, and Brehm confirmed the find just before 5 p.m.

The appearance of the wreckage suggested that there was little chance the crash was survivable and that a night recovery in the remote area would not have been safe, Mahnomen County Sheriff Doug Krier said.

The family kept up hope until learning what happened early Wednesday, said the Rev. Griggs, interim pastor of First Congregational Church in Wadena, who was there to counsel his family members and serve as their spokesman.

Griggs said his nephew Andrew was "so gifted," skilled at mechanical work on the farm as well as his work as a financial adviser for Met Life and with relationships with people.

"He loved being a son to his parents and a husband to his wife, Kate, and was looking forward to raising a family with her," said Griggs, who officiated at the wedding of Andrew and Kate Lindberg in early October in Lakeville. "Sadly, that won't happen now."

But the family on Andrew's side and Kate's side are strong people of strong faith, Griggs said.

"We will get through this together. We know Andrew is safe and warm and with God."