In 2012, an experienced pilot vanished over Minnesota's North Shore. What happened to Michael Bratlie?
Radar tracks put Michael Bratlie, an experienced military and commercial pilot, just past Two Harbors, Minnesota, in his two-engine plane. There the flight path ended, drawing exhaustive searches of Lake Superior and the thick woods and rugged terrain on shore.
TWO HARBORS, Minn. — Michael Bratlie took off from the airport in South St. Paul on June 8, 2012, and flew his two-engine plane up to Lake Superior and along Minnesota's North Shore.
A radar track of the Lakeville, Minnesota, man’s flight shows him following the shore, but the red line indicating his path ends abruptly near the Silver Creek Cliff Tunnel and Encampment Island north of Two Harbors.
There’s been no sign of him — not in the initial, exhaustive search and not in the decade since.
It’s believed Bratlie — then 67 years old, with more than 17,500 flight hours recorded as a bush pilot and a retired Northwest Airlines and U.S. Navy pilot — either crashed his twin-engine Piper PA-31 Navajo into the thick forest or into Lake Superior.
“We couldn’t find any debris. We were looking for oil slicks and debris fields and pieces of plane along the shoreline and all that,” said Carey Johnson, the Lake County sheriff from 2007 until he retired in late June. “And we never were able to come up with stuff that was related to the plane.”
According to the National Transportation Safety Board’s final report, released in January 2016, Bratlie took off just after 2 p.m. from South St. Paul Municipal Airport. He was flying within a half-mile of the Lake Superior shoreline at an altitude of 2,800 feet. As he approached Two Harbors, he descended and eventually reached an altitude of about 1,600 feet at 3:27 p.m. — his last recorded position.
He was reported missing at 10:25 p.m., the report said.
“The airplane reportedly had one of its two engines replaced and the pilot was to fly for about 4 hours to break-in the engine. The airplane did not return from the flight and was reported overdue,” the report said. “The airplane is missing and is presumed to have crashed.”
He did not file a flight plan, the report said. And a News Tribune story during the initial 2012 search said searchers weren’t able to detect the signal from the plane’s emergency beacon transmitter, which automatically sends a distress signal in a crash, meaning it was was not working, the connection to the antenna failed or the plane sunk in the lake, degrading the signal.
Lt. Col. Stan Kegel of the Minnesota Wing of Civil Air Patrol, the U.S. Air Force’s civilian auxiliary, rotated in and out of the role of incident commander during the 13-day search.
He said the Civil Air Patrol initially began its search with the available radar data, which was incomplete. It sent them into Wisconsin east of the Twin Cities. But after a day or so, improved radar data and data from Bratlie’s cellphone pointed them to the North Shore, specifically the area between Two Harbors and Silver Bay.
Ultimately, the Civil Air Patrol logged more than 600 personnel days and 600 air hours searching Lake and Cook counties and parts of St. Louis County by air.
“It’s a very heavily forested area, rugged terrain for sure. Obviously, Lake Superior was in consideration,” Kegel said. “It’s a difficult search when you’re looking down at basically solid forest. You’re looking for something that looks out of place. You’re looking for something that doesn’t look natural, something that looks disturbed.”
If they saw something noteworthy, they’d send a ground crew to check it out. Many other agencies also participated in the search.
Six weeks after her husband disappeared, Diana Bratlie wrote to the Duluth News Tribune, urging people recreating in the area to keep an eye open for signs of her husband. She made a similar plea in a May 2013 letter in the Lake County News-Chronicle, urging readers to report anything unusual to police.
Phone numbers and an email address believed to belong to Diana were no longer in service and a Facebook message from the News Tribune was not returned last week.
“Our family continues to hope he is somewhere in the remote area around Two Harbors or Silver Bay. We miss him terribly,” she wrote in the News Tribune in 2012. “With that in mind, I would like to ask anyone who is hiking, ATVing, fishing or just enjoying the beautiful north woods to be aware that Mike is still missing and to please keep an eye out for any sign of him or the plane.”
“That’s what we’ve always kind of thought. Are we going to someday have a hunter that stumbles upon wreckage?” Johnson said. “That has yet to happen.”
It wouldn’t be unprecedented.
In November 1990, a deer hunter found the remains of a float plane and its four occupants that had crashed nine years earlier in a spruce swamp 10 miles north of Island Lake.
And in September 1994, two hunters found a helicopter that had crashed the March before in forest and swamp land near Wisconsin Rapids, in central Wisconsin.
But Lake Superior poses a whole different challenge.
On Sept. 24, 1969, an Air Force jet trainer crashed in Lake Superior near Duluth during training operations. The plane and its pilot were never found.
Even after scanning areas of the lake with sonar and sending an underwater remote control camera into its depths, there was no sign of Bratlie or his plane. Johnson said he believes that’s where the plane could be.
Johnson believes because Bratlie was an experienced pilot, he would have been able to gently put his plane down in the water in the event of losing one or both of his engines. It was a maintenance flight to test a new engine, after all. A soft landing like that would have kept the plane intact, leading to no debris field.
“I am thinking it is more possible that it did go down in Lake Superior because of the day and the weather and all the rest of that,” Johnson said. “But just nobody one saw it — you didn’t hear it, you didn’t see it.”
In the years since, the Lake County Sheriff’s Office has occasionally received tips. A woman spotted something shiny on a cliff, but it turned out to be ice. And a sheriff’s deputy was fishing near Encampment Island and saw three distinct lines of bubbles coming up from the depths of the lake. He marked the location so it could be investigated, but a search of the area was fruitless.
The Civil Air Patrol would return again, too. In October 2012, it moved a planned training to the North Shore so it could both train and search for Bratlie when trees were bare, but it didn’t turn up anything.
“We pour a lot of ourselves into this and, obviously, it's our great hope that we find someone alive and rescue them, or in the absence of that, we hope to at least provide some closure and help resolve the situation,” Kegel said. “And so it's deeply disappointing when that's not the way it turns out.”