Recovery Mission

Miami-Dade Police identify passenger who fell from plane; search continues

 
 
The plane sits inside a hanger at Tamiami Airport on Friday Nov. 15, 2013.
The plane sits inside a hanger at Tamiami Airport on Friday Nov. 15, 2013.
For the Miami Herald / Lidia Dinkova

dsmiley@MiamiHerald.com

At some point Thursday, Gerardo Nales apparently left his Key Biscayne condo and traveled 25 miles west to Kendall-Tamiami Executive Airport.

He and a pilot boarded a single-engine Piper Malibu that took off and flew east over Biscayne Bay.

Then, some 2,000 feet in the air, the plane door opened and Nales was in free fall, plunging toward the earth at terminal velocity.

On Friday, a day after the pilot told investigators he had watched Nales open the door and fall out, no one has provided an answer to a central question as police recovery crews scour the waters of the bay.

What happened? And why?

Nales’ body had not been found late Friday. Investigators declined to say why he and his pilot were even in the air. And police said they don’t know whether Nales had fallen to his presumed death.

“We have yet to determine if a crime was committed,” said Miami-Dade Detective Javier Baez, a police spokesman.

Police identified Nales, 42, as the passenger who, according to the pilot, popped open the door to the plane and fell out. The pilot, identified by WTVJ-NBC6 as Felipe Fons, radioed air traffic control about 1:30 p.m. and said his door was ajar and his passenger was missing.

“He opened the back door and he just fell down the plane,” the pilot said.

Police, fire rescue and the U.S. Coast Guard searched Thursday as far out as two miles east of Key Biscayne but found nothing. They continued to search for the body Friday, expanding their dragnet to a long swath of Biscayne Bay that stretched from Haulover Beach to Turkey Point.

For a second straight day, police ended their hunt at dusk and said they’d return for another day of searching with helicopters and boats. But Saturday will be the last day of the recovery mission, whether Nales’ body is found or not.

Investigators wouldn’t say Friday how Nales knew the pilot, whom they would not name. A spokeswoman with the Federal Aviation Administration also declined to say when the plane took off from Tamiami or its location when the pilot issue his mayday, citing an active investigation.

There was no stated destination for the flight because the pilot did not file a flight plan, said Kathleen Bergen, the spokeswoman.

“You’ll have to ask the pilot the destination and purpose of the flight,” Bergen said.

Miami Herald news partner WFOR-CBS4 reported Friday that Nales had for months begged the pilot to take him up in the plane. The station, citing police sources, said that Nales opened the Piper’s door himself and leapt to his death.

If true, the suicide would be eerily reminiscent of an incident nearly 20 years ago, when a woman chartered a plane out of Opa-locka and had the pilot fly over Miami-Dade’s southwest suburbs, where her parents lived.

“My passenger just left the plane,” the pilot told air traffic control.

Her body was never found.

Nales was a part-time resident of the Towers of Key Biscayne, nearby where crews initially searched for his body.

His friends and family couldn’t be reached for comment.

The maroon and white Piper remained at Tamiami Friday in a hanger on the south end of the airport. A representative of Wings of Flight, the south Miami-Dade company that owns the Piper, did not respond to requests for comment.

The plane was polished and shiny, save some scuff marks and dents on the plane’s tail number.

Miami Herald freelancer Lidia Dinkova contributed to this report.

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