Miami-Dade police resumed their search Friday for the body of a passenger who reportedly fell from a small plane flying 2,000 feet over the Atlantic early Thursday afternoon.
Police on Friday identified the passenger as Gerardo Nales, 42, of Key Biscayne. Police are not identifying the pilot “due to the ongoing and active investigation.”
Helicopters and police boats were trolling an area from Haulover Beach south to Turkey Point, but as of early afternoon no body had been found, according to Detective Javier Baez, a police spokesman. Police have been searching for a body since about 1:30 p.m. Thursday, when the pilot of a Piper PA 46 plane that had taken flight from Kendall-Tamiami Executive Airport radioed air traffic control and said he had an emergency and was headed back to the airport.
“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! I have a door ajar and I’m heading toward Tamiami,” he said. “I have a door ajar and a passenger that fell down.”
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“You said you’ve got a passenger that fell out of your plane?” the air traffic controller asked.
“That’s correct, sir,” the pilot responded. “He opened the back door and he just fell down the plane.”
The call was received by Miami Terminal Radar Approach Control, and the Federal Aviation Administration notified the U.S. Coast Guard and Miami-Dade Fire Rescue. Crews scrambled to search for the victim and homicide investigators began looking into whether the passenger jumped or fell from the plane.
Either way, pilots and aviation experts say occurred under “extremely unusual” circumstances.
“It’s safe to say someone falling out of an airplane without a parachute is going to be deceased,” said Lt. John Jenkins, Jr., a police spokesman.
The Piper plane remained Friday at Tamiami airport, where the pilot landed after making the call that quickly became national news. He was about six miles east of the airport when Nales — the plane’s only passenger — took the plunge, according to the call obtained through the independent website LiveATC.net, which streams live air-traffic communications.
After the pilot arrived back at the airport, he requested emergency services for Nales. He remained with investigators at the airport until after dusk.
It’s still unknown how the pilot and Nales knew each other — information police have not yet released. It’s also unknown where they were going.
Kathleen Bergen, an FAA spokeswoman, said Friday that the Piper was flying on visual flight rules and did not have to file a flight plan.
“You’ll have to ask the pilot the destination and purpose of the flight,” Bergen wrote in an email.
It was also unknown whether anyone at the airport saw the passenger board the aircraft just before it took off.
Bergen said the FAA does not release the names of pilots or passengers.
State records show the aircraft is registered to Wings of Flight out of South Miami-Dade. The company is registered to Dennis Haber, an aviation attorney who did not respond to requests for an interview Thursday and Friday.
Eric Weiss, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, said his agency was aware of the report and was monitoring the situation.
While someone falling from a plane is rare event, it does happen, said Stephen Hedges, a spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association — a group that represents more than 400,000 pilots and aircraft owners across the United States.
“It’s extremely unusual,” he said, adding that the only way a plane’s door would open is if it was not latched properly, or someone forced it open. The likelihood of someone falling from a plane and surviving is slim, said Hedges.
Earlier this month, a man died after he chartered a helicopter in Newport Beach, Calif., opened the door and jumped to his death. And in 1994, a woman chartered a plane from Opa-locka, then jumped out, probably landing near a mangrove swamp close to Biscayne Bay. Investigators never found her body.
There have also been several incidents in which a door has fallen off a plane in midflight, including one last month in Monterey, Calif.
Thursday, police would say only that they were investigating a death. But Nales’ plunge left questions, including what would prompt someone open a door in midflight.
“There aren’t very many reasons why you would need to open a door,” said Brian Raistrick, a retired pilot and aviation mechanic. “Something had to have happened.”