Somewhere in the murky depths of the Arkansas River lie the remains of a small plane — and the answers Naomi Dupre needs. It’s been nearly two months since her stepfather, Herbert Kirby of Monument, and a passenger were killed when Kirby’s single-engine Cessna crashed into the river near Little Rock.
Authorities there say they may never find the plane, after a search late last month of its suspected location turned up nothing. “It’s been the second piece of bad news. It’s right up there with the news of the crash,” said Dupre, also of Monument. It means her family may never know why it crashed. They may never know for sure what they believe in their hearts: that something more than pilot error made it go down. “We just know what a skilled pilot he was,” Dupre said. “I feel like there had to be something that would have happened.” Kirby, owner of Kirby Fiberglass Inc. in Pueblo, was flying from Pueblo to Florida on Jan. 10 to pick up a new plane. With him was his longtime friend, Ira Cleveland Reeves, 62, of Pueblo. The 70-year-old Kirby had been flying for 46 years, since serving as a flight instructor in the Army Security Agency from 1957 to 1962. He was experienced and careful, Dupre said. The plane went down in heavy fog while approaching Little Rock National Airport, where he planned to refuel. In his final radio transmission, he reported no problems and said he was circling the runway to land. A witness told investigators the plane made a drastic pull-up near the airport, banked steeply and disappeared in the clouds. Kirby’s body was found, but Reeves’ has not been recovered. Officials think he is still in the plane. Hector Casanova, regional director of the National Transportation Safety Board, said little is known about the crash. “We need the aircraft to conduct an investigation,” Casanova said. “Without it, we can’t determine anything.” On Jan. 11, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, working with the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office, identified through sonar what looked like the plane resting at the bottom of the river. But the river was swollen by heavy rain to four times its regular flow. It was too dangerous for divers, and officials say the plane would have broken up in the swift current had they tried to hoist it out. The river there is about 1,500 feet wide and up to 50 feet deep. In a major effort spanning two states Feb. 22, the corps closed the gates at 11 dams upriver, giving divers an opportunity to go after the plane. They found no trace of it. Corps of Engineers spokesman P.J. Spaul said it either moved in the current, was covered with sand or broke into pieces and washed away. Spaul said it is possible the plane — or its broken pieces — could have been swept a “considerable distance.” The dam gates have been reopened, and the Corps of Engineers will watch for the plane while it does its routine sonar surveys. No more dives or other searches are planned. At this point, authorities are more interested in finding Reeves’ remains, for his family’s sake. Spaul concedes the odds are against finding either. “If the plane is still intact, gosh, where is it? There’s a lot of river to search,” Spaul said. “We could use a little luck. The families could use a little luck.” Reeves’ relatives declined to be interviewed. Dupre said they have struggled with his death. There has been no funeral, and they didn’t publish an obituary until Feb. 23 — the day after the last big search. Naomi Dupre said Reeves is her main concern, but if they could find the plane, too, it might save her a lifetime of wondering what went wrong. “If you read a book or see a movie where you’re not really told how it ends, you make things up,” Dupre said. “At the same time, you need to move on, and I hope we can do that.” CONTACT THE WRITER: 476-1605 or firstname.lastname@example.org