'A sense of closure came over us': Missing plane found 31 years later

Search-and-rescue crews were looking for a different plane when they spotted the wreckage of the float plane carrying Ernie Whitehead and Len Dykhuizen, last seen in June 1987.

On June 20, 1987, Ernie G. Whitehead and Len Dykhuizen boarded a two-seater float plane from Eagle Bay in the Shuswap for a fishing trip. They never returned.

Now more than 30 years later, a search for a different plane inadvertently led to the discovery of the missing Piper Super Cub, giving family a measure of comfort.

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“We were relieved, and a sense of closure came over us even though it’s been 31 years now,” said Whitehead’s niece Claire, who grew up flying and fishing with her Uncle Ernie in the Shuswap. “After a few years, we had given up and (understood) it’s very difficult to find small planes in that area of central British Columbia.”

Whitehead, one of 10 siblings, was an experienced pilot who had a hangar on the shores of the lake.

Stephen Whitehead was only two when the plane went missing. He knew of his great-uncle Ernie mostly through his dad, John, also a pilot who had helped in the search and is now deceased.

“My dad didn’t talk much about him,” said Stephen, who lives in Alberta. “It was tough. The effect on my dad was so bad. He was broken-hearted.”

Claire said her uncle loved flying, a passion sparked by his own uncle and middle-name namesake, Gustave Whitehead, a U.S. aviation pioneer recognized in some circles as the first man to achieve flight.

Whitehead, 78, and Dykhuizen, 55, were headed to McDougall Lake when they crashed. Nearly 100 people, both civilians and military personnel, scoured more than 59,000-square-kilometres over nine days, looking for a trace of the two men.

The family was informed of the discovery last month after members of the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre, conducting a search for a missing Alberta plane, found the wreckage near Kostal Lake in Wells Gray Provincial Park, just south of McDougall Lake.

“It’s very exciting news,” said another niece, Bunny Whitehead, who lives in Eagle Bay. “After 31 years of wondering, it’s incredible.”

Contacted by Postmedia News, a daughter of Dykhuizen declined comment, saying the family would prefer to wait until spring when the plane is retrieved before speaking with the media.

Clearwater RCMP and search and rescue crews had tried to retrieve the plane, which is in a remote area. Repeated attempts to fly into the area over the past few weeks haven’t been successful due to bad weather. Attempts to access the site will resume in the spring, police said.

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