Coast Guard crews saw no signs Thursday that the pilot of a small plane heading to Sarasota Bradenton International Airport survived when his Cessna went down in the Gulf of Mexico about three hours after two F-15 fighter jets tried to make contact with him.
Coast Guard Chief John Edwards said the plane landed right-side up on the ocean surface and floating, but monitoring planes did not see a life raft deploy or anything to indicate the pilot - the lone person aboard - was alive. The Cessna 421C later started sinking sunk into the Gulf about 120 miles west of Tampa in about 1,500 feet of water.
A Coast Guard cutter and rescue helicopter were en route to the crash site, but not expected to arrive before the plane was well submerged.
Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said the plane was flying from Slidell, La. She said controllers lost contact with the pilot at 9 a.m. The Coast Guard said it went down about 12:10 p.m.
Authorities have not identified the pilot. But Bill Huete, a mechanic who has worked in the past on the downed aircraft at Slidell Airport, identified him as Dr. Peter Hertzak, an OB-GYN who worked in the Slidell community just northeast of New Orleans.
"I met him years ago when he was looking to start flying again and bought this plane," said Huete.
Huete described Hertzak as an excellent pilot. "He flew by the book and he didn't scrimp on maintenance," Huete said.
Huete said he went to the airport after hearing reports that identified the plane and was upset by the news.
Two F-15 fighter jets tried to make contact with the plane at 8:45 EDT and were flying with it and monitoring it, but weren't able to hail the pilot, said North American Aerospace Defense Command spokesman John Cornelio. The jets' pilots reported that the Cessna's windshield was iced over and that the plane was fluctuating between 25,000 and 35,000 feet.
A computer-generated image provided by FlightAware, a private aviation flight path service, shows the plane traveling in several circles over the Gulf for hours before going down.
The two F-15s from the New Orleans National Guard were already on a mission over the Gulf, Coast Guard Chief John Edwards said in a news release. The Jacksonville Air Traffic Control Center asked the military if jets could check on the plane that was orbiting near one of Eglin Air Force Base's warning areas over the Gulf, Edwards said. Eglin is located on Florida's Panhandle.
Rick Piccolo, president and CEO of Sarasota Bradenton International Airport, said he's still not sure who the pilot is or why he was headed to SRQ.
The airport handles about 80,000 private operations a year, and none of the companies that frequently do business there have reported a connection to the plane.
"I don't have many details at this point," Piccolo said. "We checked with our three fixed base operators, and at this time, none have indicated they had prior knowledge of the plane coming here. It sounds like the plane was based out of Louisiana, or that area, and was just coming here to take care of its business, fuel up and go back."
"It appears the pilot had some sort of medical problem, became unconscious and the plane was just hovering around until it ran out of gas," Piccolo said. "We know (the pilot) was coming here, but we don't know who it was."