Crews narrow search area for plane lost from radar on approach to RDU

Crews from a dozen state and local agencies searched William B. Umstead State Park overnight, looking for a small plane that reportedly crashed as it approached Raleigh-Durham International Airport on Sunday evening.

The missing plane had not been located as of 8:45 a.m.. Monday, but searchers have narrowed the area of the park where they are looking for it, said airport spokeswoman Crystal Feldman. She could not be more specific about the search area, but all of Umstead State Park will be closed Monday.

Feldman said the Raleigh Fire Department was leading the search, with help from numerous area fire and law enforcement departments. Late Sunday, a State Highway Patrol helicopter was “searching for a heat signature on the ground,” which might indicate the plane’s location.

“Umstead State Park is 5,200 acres of dense forest with few roads and little to no light,” Feldman said Sunday. “It could take a very long time for us to find this plane.”

Feldman said the search was suspended about 2 a.m. Monday, then resumed at dawn. She said she had no information about the aircraft, including the number of people on board or where the flight originated.

“Our primary goal right now is to find that airplane,” she said. “All of our focus is on that operation.”

At about 7:25 p.m., Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controllers notified the airport that they had lost radar contact with a plane as it approached RDU. A statement from the airport said the small general aviation aircraft was near Umstead State Park, which borders the east side of RDU.

The FAA later said the plane was a Piper PA-32, a single-engine plane that seats up to six people. The federal agency said the plane was approaching Runway 32, a small general aviation runway that runs east-west, perpendicular to the airport’s two main runways.

For hours after the plane was reported missing, Raleigh police blocked Ebenezer Church Road near Graylyn Drive, which provides access to remote areas of Umstead.

RDU said the airport was closed for about 20 minutes while fire and rescue crews responded to the reported crash, preventing planes from taking off or landing. It reopened at 7:45 p.m. Several incoming flights were briefly diverted, and several outgoing flights were delayed as well.

Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.