Distress call spurs search | AspenTimes.com

Distress call spurs search

Janet Urquhart

A distress signal picked up at the Aspen Airport yesterday afternoon had local authorities scouring the woods between Buttermilk and Snowmass late into Sunday night.

A signal from an emergency locating transmitter, or ELT, was detected at the airport tower at about 4:30 p.m. Sunday, according to Deputy Randy Smith of the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office.

The signal, transmitted on an emergency frequency, was of the type used by downed airplanes, but no aircraft were reported missing or overdue at the local airport, said Smith.

“We’re not sure what we have – we’re not sure if it’s a plane or something transmitting out of a hiker’s backpack,” he said. “We’re not really sure what we’re looking for.”

Authorities crisscrossed the Aspen-Snowmass area by vehicle, searching for points where the signal was strongest, throughout the evening. They had narrowed the search to the mountainous terrain between West Buttermilk and Snowmass ski area shortly before 11 p.m. last night.

Searchers with the sheriff’s office, Aspen Air Rescue and Mountain Rescue Aspen were preparing to begin a search with snowmobiles along the Government Trail between Buttermilk and Snowmass at about 11 p.m. The commander of the Colorado Civil Air Patrol was also on hand.

“If somebody’s in trouble who has a portable transmitter, we’d like to find him tonight,” Smith said. “We’d not like him to be out all night.”

Smith said he expected the search to halt an hour or two after midnight last night and resume at first light today unless searchers “get something that keeps us driving.”

If the search resumes today, it will involve ground teams and a search by air, he said.

After the signal was detected at the Aspen Airport Sunday, the air traffic center in Denver was contacted and the signal was subsequently detected by a satellite and commercial flights flying over the Aspen area, according to Smith.

Typically, when an ELT signal is detected, an airplane on the tarmac is inadvertently sending it and the pilot is told to turn it off, Smith said.

“When they happen in the woods, we want to find out why. They’re not usually found in the woods,” he said.

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