MOISES, Mont. -- Authorities found four bodies inside the wreckage of a small plane Wednesday on a rugged hillside in northwestern Montana, bringing a tragic end to a 2 1/2-day search for a group of friends who went out for an afternoon sightseeing trip and never returned.
Family members awaiting word in Moises, headquarters of the National Bison Range, broke down upon hearings of the deaths of pilot and recent University of Montana graduate Sonny Kless, law student Brian Williams and newspaper reporters Erika Hoefer and Melissa Weaver.
"It's a terrible, terrible loss for all the families," said Michelle Gentry, Kless' aunt. "It's just a tragedy. I think (Kless) was out doing something he loved to do."
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection aircraft discovered a plane matching the description of the missing 1968 Piper Arrow on Wednesday afternoon in the remote area about 80 miles south of Kalispell just inside the Sanders County line, not far from the plane's last known location.
An Air Force helicopter flew to the crash site a couple of miles east of the Flathead River near the bison range. Sanders County Undersheriff Rube Wrightsman rappelled from the helicopter down to the rocky terrain to verify what the searchers already suspected.
"We did confirm it was the plane that we were looking for and we also confirmed there were four deceased people in the plane," Wrightsman said. "Because of the ruggedness of the area, you almost had be right over top to see it."
The four took off Sunday from Kalispell, flew through Glacier National Park and then headed south across Flathead Lake. They were last tracked near the Flathead River, according to radar data.
Janelle Gentry of Kalispell, Kless' mother, said her 25-year-old son got his pilot's license about a year ago and had flown the Glacier National Park-Flathead Lake-Flathead River loop several times.
Thirty of Kless' 100 hours of flight time were in the Piper Arrow, which he had rented Sunday, said Joel Woodruff, general manager of Northstar Jet Inc. in Missoula and owner of the plane.
A roommate notified authorities when Weaver didn't return or call. The search got under way Monday, at first concentrated in the Flathead Valley, then shifting south after officials analyzed data from radar and cell phone towers.
The search involved more than 100 people using aircraft, boats, horses and all-terrain vehicles. Several relatives and friends of the missing joined the effort.
Weaver, 23, was from Billings. Hoefer, 27, was from Beloit, Wis. Both started reporting for the Daily Inter Lake of Kalispell at the end of last year.
Kless was a recent graduate of the University of Montana and had been planning to teach English in Asia later this year. Williams attended law school at the University of Montana.