LECANTO — Lt. Steve Vitt said he seldom has encountered vegetation as thick and arduous as what he rode through Thursday as his team searched for missing 74-year-old pilot Theodore Weiss of Zephyrhills.
At times, Vitt, who commands the volunteer Citrus County Sheriff's Office mounted posse, and the others were forced to dismount and use machetes to hack away the thick vines that ensnared their horses.
"It's really made for some tough going for us," Vitt said. "You don't move very fast through stuff like that."
In the fourth day of their search for the missing pilot, crews concentrated on an area of the Withlacoochee State Forest east of County Road 491 and north of County Road 480 in south Citrus County.
One of the most densely wooded areas of the Citrus Tract of the forest, with large stands of pine, oak and cypress trees, some sections are so remote that avid hikers and trail horse riders rarely visit there. And it's the kind of place where a small plane could easily disappear with hardly a trace, said Sheriff's Office Lt. Buddy Grant.
"Talk about a needle in a haystack," Grant said as he pointed to a map of the roughly 5- by 10-mile swath that crews began searching Monday.
Between 120 and 135 searchers — including law enforcement personnel from Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Sumter, Levy and Marion counties; the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and the Florida Forest Service — have concentrated their efforts in an area authorities believe to be the likely route Weiss would have taken from Dunnellon/Marion County Airport, from which he departed Saturday, to Zephyrhills Municipal Airport.
Weiss' plane was reported missing after worried friends went to the Zephyrhills airport and found his car still parked there and his airplane hangar empty. Grant said that according to information from the Civil Air Patrol, radar in Gainesville and Tampa reaches sections of Weiss' likely route, but neither radar system is capable of capturing planes in a "dead zone" over a section of the forest.
"It's a lot of area that's not covered by radar, and a place where we thought we should look first," Grant said of the location where the search has been taking place.
Friends have described Weiss as an experienced pilot who frequently flew to New York, where he lives part of the year.
The small, single-engine Sonex two-seater craft is described as a popular "kit" plane that was built by hand in the early 2000s by Dave Fortuna, a pastor in Louisiana. He sold the aircraft to a buyer from Atlanta in 2003.
According to Maj. Joseph Tomasone of the Florida Wing of the Civil Air Patrol, Weiss had been in Marion County for the second annual Spring Sonex Fest, sponsored by the Florida Sonex Association, of which he is a member.
Hernando County sheriff's spokeswoman Denise Moloney said Thursday that her agency will take the lead role in the search as of 8 a.m. today. The command post, however, will remain at the Homosassa Fire Department on S Lecanto Highway in Lecanto.
Staff writer Claire Wiseman contributed to this report. Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.