Jackson County

Experienced volunteer searches for missing plane as DMR suspends efforts

A day after the U.S. Coast Guard suspended its own search, a Slidell man is hoping he -- and about $150,000 worth of sonar equipment on this boat -- can help find a missing airplane and its three passengers.

Gerald Miletello, of West Monroe, La., Dexter Brewer of Saucier and pilot Ron Gregory have been missing since their Lancair single-engine aircraft disappeared Monday afternoon, just minutes after taking off from the Million Air terminal at Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport.

Officials had been searching the water near the Ocean Springs beach where a part of the tail was recovered Tuesday morning.

As the Coast Guard suspended its search Wednesday, Miletello's wife, Pam Miletello, pleaded with the public to help with the search. Pac Brian responded.

Brian's day job involves working on oil and pipeline projects. But he's volunteered his time to numerous search and recovery efforts.

"Thank God there's not many fatalities I get on. But when I hear them, I always try to volunteer," he said. "I feel compelled to volunteer because it's someone's loved one that's lost. Somebody's daddy, someone's son, someone's brother. I always try to help if I can."

Brian will use side-scan sonar to essentially create an image of the seabed. The sonar will transmit the information to a GPS system and Brian can direct divers to specific coordinates if he picks up anything.

"So imagine flying over a body of water and looking down into the water, but imagine there is no water so you can see everything on the seabed," Brian said.

He'll also use a magnetometer, which will alert him to any magnetized metal, such as the plane engine, under water or buried in the mud. The instrument is so sensitive he's used it to find metal under 50 feet of mud, Brian said.

Brian has used the equipment successfully before, he said. In 2003, he was involved in the recovery of the space shuttle Columbia after it disintegrated over Texas and Louisiana upon re-entry into the earth's atmosphere. His equipment allowed the Coast Guard to recover a body missing near the Popp's Ferry Bridge in 2009. And he went to Chicago to help with a search following a barge explosion.

Before the Coast Guard called off its search, crews covered more than 3,500 square miles.

The DMR suspended its search and rescue efforts at sundown Thursday.

The Jackson County Sheriff's Department welcomed the help of anyone who can assist with the search.

But they said anyone who finds debris shouldn't touch or attempt to retrieve it but instead call the sheriff's department at 769-3063 or the DMR at 374-5000.

DMR Chief of Marine Patrol Keith Davis said DMR will transition its resources into a "recovery effort," looking for wreckage with a limited number of boats and personnel.

"The biggest difference is manpower," he said. "It basically just looks like a smaller scale than what you have been used to seeing."

Davis said he has seen civilian boats in the search area, answering the plea made by Pam Miletello on Wednesday.

He said the DMR boats also have been using sonar equipment, but Davis declined to comment on whether any sign of the plane had been detected.

As a warning to civilian boats searching in the area, Davis said boaters need to be aware their boats and equipment could interfere with and have a negative effect on the DMR's sonar readings.

"We would ask that other boaters take notice of our efforts and that we are running sonar in that particular area of the Mississippi Sound and just to be aware that their presence does affect the sonar capabilities," he said.

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