SAN JOSE -- The third day of searching for a San Jose family whose plane went missing Sunday in the central Idaho backcountry grew grimmer Wednesday even as the efforts were bolstered by additional manpower, aircraft and high-tech search tools.

The faint pickup of an emergency beacon Tuesday sparked hope by narrowing the search area, but when the signal could not be detected Wednesday, the search was broadened.

Family and friends continue waiting nervously for news from the search for Dale Smith, who lives in South San Jose, and passengers that include his son Daniel Smith and his wife, Sheree Smith, as well as daughter Amber Smith and her fiance Jonathan Norton.

Dale Smith
Dale Smith (KGO-TV)

Loved ones are holding out hope for a positive outcome -- a feat that has become more challenging with each passing hour.

"You have to be (hopeful). They've got a huge force looking for them," said Rand Kriech, who co-founded the San Jose-based data-storage firm SerialTek with Dale Smith, the pilot of the plane. "Hopefully they'll put that to good use."

Kriech commended Dale Smith's wife, Janis, for her composure in the face of uncertainty.

"She's been remarkable through this whole process," Kriech said. "I don't know how she does it."

In all, about 60 people are searching for Smith's Beech Bonanza plane. Authorities Wednesday used two helicopters and five planes in the search, according to Rob Feeley, a spokesman for the Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security.


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Three of the planes, from the Civil Air Patrol, joined the effort Wednesday, as did 18 members of the Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue unit, Feeley said. They also brought in from Wyoming what is known as forward-looking infrared radar, which detects ground temperatures and can pick up anomalies like sunlight reflecting off metal.

Kriech said he spoke with Janis Smith, who traveled to the site near where the family plane last made contact, Wednesday. She is in Idaho with her eldest daughter, Crystal, and other relatives.

"Obviously our hearts are breaking, and we just want our family back," Crystal told reporters in Idaho.

Brad Norton, who was identified on a television report as the family spokesman, said they are praying for a good outcome.

"We continue to hope for a miracle," he said.

Kriech said Janis Smith was told by authorities that if nothing was found Wednesday, the search for her family could be curtailed or called off altogether.

But Mallory Eiles of the Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security said they don't intend to stop the search, although the amount of dedicated resources may change if participating agencies need to allocate them for other purposes.


View Johnson Creek Airstrip in a larger map

"The plan is not to stop until something changes significantly," Eiles said Wednesday evening, about an hour after the search was called off for the day at 5 p.m. with no new developments. "The plan is not to stop unless they find something or something prevents them from searching."

The Smith family spent the Thanksgiving holiday in Baker City, Ore., where Dale Smith's father lives, after which the flying group headed to Butte, Mont., where Daniel and Sheree Smith were to be dropped off.

Smith's last radio broadcast was Sunday afternoon, when he reported engine trouble on the flight. He asked controllers in Salt Lake City for coordinates to the Johnson Creek Airport, a grass-covered landing strip near the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness and no more than 100 miles east of Baker City.

But then the plane lost radar and cell tower contact.

On Tuesday, an aircraft searching the area picked up a weak emergency locator transmitter about a mile south of the Johnson Creek airstrip.

Feeley said while the signals didn't lead to an exact location of the plane, they narrowed the search that day to an area south of the airstrip where the plane was headed, near Yellow Pine, Idaho, which he called "highly inaccessible, rugged terrain."

But after the signal could not be detected Wednesday, the teams decided to widen their search "as that signal may be misleading due to the mountainous terrain and the unreliable nature of the signal."

Search efforts have been restricted by available daylight because the aircraft has to be grounded by sundown.

Kriech said Smith bought his airplane in 2005 and has been flying ever since. Kriech said he has flown with Smith on occasion.

"He's a very safe pilot," Kriech said. "Very cautious."

Jonathan Norton's uncle Alan Dayton told the Salt Lake Tribune that his nephew and Amber Smith were planning a Jan. 4 wedding, Dayton said.

"The family is extremely worried," Dayton said. "There's a feeling of helplessness."

Contact Robert Salonga at rsalonga@mercurynews.com, Mark Gomez at mgomez@mercurynews.com, or Eric Kurhi at ekurhi@mercurynews.com.