FAA calls reported South Bay plane crash a hoax

January 26, 2010 7:44:27 PM PST
ABC7 is learning more about the emergency call over the weekend that led to a massive search for a plane that reportedly crashed somewhere in the South Bay. The FAA now believes it was a hoax, but the security issues raised are serious.

The radio conversation between the caller and the air traffic controller lasted about 30 minutes. In fact, ABC7 has been told that because of the emergency call, a commercial airline pilot was put on hold.

The FAA in Oakland received the emergency call for help around noon Saturday. The call came into the FAA's emergency air traffic frequency and the caller said he was a passenger aboard a small plane that crashed in the mountains near Stanford University.

ABC7 has learned from a source who listened to the recording that the caller said his name was Mike Henderson and that his leg was broken. He also said the pilot was unconscious and they had departed from South County Airport near Morgan Hill for a tour of the Bay Area.

That source told ABC7 Tuesday, the FAA believes the caller used a handheld transceiver like a ground to air radio, which someone can buy over the Internet for a couple of hundred dollars.

The call triggered a massive response.

"Lots of resources, yes and a lot of agencies as well," Sgt. Rick Sung of the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Department said.

In all, nine different law enforcement, fire and rescue agencies began looking for a downed plane. The Santa Clara County Sheriff's Department coordinated the search.

"We first deployed our ground units from our West Valley patrol station, about three to four deputies went out there," Sung said.

The ground teams canvassed the mountains around Stanford University. They asked for volunteers from their search and rescue teams.

The sheriff's helicopter was joined by choppers from other agencies, including a plane from the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office and the U.S. Coast Guard.

"We then reached out to Civil Air Patrol, Civil Air Patrol agreed to send out an airplane the next day," Sung said.

The search was finally stopped by mid-day Sunday. ABC7's source says the FAA's radio receivers were finally able to zero in on downtown Los Altos as the place where the caller radioed for help.

ABC7 aviation consultant Ron Wilson says the situation raises a new serious security issue.

"Someone intent on a criminal act could actually communicate with the pilot of an aircraft, say on approach to San Francisco, if they knew the frequency and it's not hard to find out, and give the pilot instructions that could cause that pilot to make a turn in front of another airplane, for instance," Wilson said.

The Santa Clara County Sheriff's Department has yet to figure out just how much the search cost, but it costs about $600 an hour to fly their helicopter. They also say if there had been an emergency elsewhere, their resources would have been stretched thin. They do say they are still on standby, just in case there really is a downed plane.