A Venezuelan civil protection pilot flies over the jungle where the Nortons may have crashed in February 2009. (Photo: Contributed)

It’s been almost three years since Bryant, Ala., native Bob Norton and his wife Neiba disappeared in the jungle of Venezuela with five other passengers on board his Cessna plane.

The husband-wife medical aviation missionary team and their patients were last seen taking off from Karun, Venezuela, on Feb. 16, 2009. Norton’s final in-flight radio transmission was an urgent yet unintelligible call to his assistant at his home base in Maurak.

Intense search efforts took place in the days following the plane’s disappearance. Three days into the search efforts, one of the search helicopters received a six-second voice transmission-in English-on an emergency frequency. However, the helicopter pilot spoke very little English, so he could not make out what was said. The area was searched, but the wreckage has still not been found.

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Benefit for missing Alabama missionary

What: Finding Bob Norton benefit dinner

When: Saturday, Feb. 4, 5:30 p.m. EST

Where:  Riedgedale Tavern in Trion, Ga.

Cost: $25 per person

For more information: Call 423-280-8217 or visit www.findingbobnorton.org

“Bob’s mom called and left me a voice mail message the day after he went missing-I still have that message saved,” Bob Edwards, Norton’s longtime friend, said. “I was in shock and didn’t know what to do because I didn’t have any connections in Venezuela at the time. My wife, Lisa, looked at me and said, ‘You have to do something-find Bob.'”

That’s when Edwards decided to take search efforts into his own hands.

A mechanical engineer with search-and-rescue experience, Edwards was joined by J.D. Brown, an Air National Guard pilot and Delta Airlines pilot, in forming the Norton Search Team. The two began to cultivate volunteers from all over the country. Kevin Price joined the team from the start, offering expertise in satellite image analysis from his involvement with the search for missing pilot Steve Fossett in 2007.

“It was the hand of Providence that helped form our team,” Edwards recalled. “We have renowned search-and-rescue technicians and pilots from all over the country who volunteer their time to continue this search effort.”

Edwards and Robbie Norton, Bob Norton’s son, went to Venezuela in April 2009 to search in high-priority areas. Although they did not find the wreckage, Edwards returned home determined to expand efforts and resources for his lost friend. He returned to Venezuela alone in September 2009, searching priority areas of the jungle by foot with locals who had known Norton or those who had family members on the missing plane.

For the past three years, the Norton Search Team has worked diligently to coordinate an international search process for Bob and Neiba Norton and their passengers: Gladys Zerpa, Flora Mujica, Mujica’s daughter Juli, Paulina Neri and Neri’s infant son Eddi.

Bob and Neiba Norton (with Venezuelans) next to their Cessna plane, which has been missing since February 2009. (Photo: Contributed)

“We work very closely with the civil protection search agency in Venezuela on all aspects of the search,” Edwards said. “Some of their key team members have come to the United States to attend our Bob Norton search summits.”

Recently, the Norton Search Team has been working with engineering students at Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville to develop an unmanned search plane-the Aerial Search Platform-which will utilize cameras and sensors to scan the jungle canopy for signs of a crash site.

Members of the search team will return to Venezuela this February, exactly three years after the plane was last seen, to meet with Venezuelan officials about utilizing the Aerial Search Platform and to talk with eyewitnesses who saw the plane in flight three years ago in order to determine its final flight path and prioritize search areas.

Although the Norton Search Team is determined to solve this sad mystery, they are also hopeful that the cutting-edge technology and search-and-rescue processes they develop will assist in future search-and-rescue efforts in remote areas.

In an effort to raise remaining funds for their search efforts in Venezuela in February, the Norton Search Team is hosting a benefit dinner on Saturday, Feb. 4, at the Riedgedale Tavern in Trion, Ga. The event will feature dinner, a silent auction, live music and a briefing about the Norton Search Team’s efforts. Tickets are $25 each, and reservations can be made by calling 423-280-8217.

To learn more about the search for Bob and Neida Norton, Alabama’s missing medical aviation missionaries, visit www.findingbobnorton.org.

Jenni Frankenberg Veal is a freelance writer based on Walden’s Ridge outside of Chattanooga. She enjoys writing about the natural world and exploration opportunities found within the southeastern United States, one of the most biologically and recreationally rich regions on earth. Visit her blog at www.YourOutdoorFamily.com.

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