The pilot’s call for help was calm, but his message was stunning:
“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! I have a door ajar and I’m heading toward Tamiami,” he said Thursday as he flew over the Atlantic.
Then, “I have a door ajar and a passenger that fell down.”
“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 backdoor and he just fell down the plane.”
The pilot’s 1:30 p.m. emergency call from 2,000 feet in the air Thursday set off a frantic, hours-long search for someone who either fell or jumped into waters east of Key Biscayne. The search by Miami-Dade police, fire rescue and the U.S. Coast Guard ended Thursday night without success.
Marine patrols would resume what’s expected to be a recovery mission Friday morning, said Miami-Dade Police spokesman Lt. John Jenkins, Jr.
Meanwhile, homicide investigators are looking into a death investigation that 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,” Jenkins said.
The Piper PA 46 plane remained at the Kendall-Tamiami Executive Airport Thursday night where the unidentified pilot landed after making the call that quickly became national news. He was about six miles east of the airport when the unidentified man – 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.
When the pilot arrived back at the airport, he requested emergency services for the passenger. The Federal Aviation Administration contacted the U.S. Coast Guard and Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, according to agency spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen. Miami-Dade Police and Fire Rescue began a search for the passenger with helicopters and marine patrol boats.
At first, police had little to go on.
“We have reports — I want to emphasize that, reports — of a passenger of a plane that either jumped or fell several miles out from shore. Homicide at this point is investigating,” said Detective Javier Baez, a Miami-Dade Police spokesman. “All that could change.”
By Thursday night, Jenkins said the pilot, who took off from Tamiami, was cooperating, and remained with investigators until after dusk. Jenkins declined to release the names of the pilot and passenger and would not describe their relationship or the reason for the flight.
It was 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 and declined to release the ID number for the plane. Communications between the pilot and Miami Terminal Radar Approach Control, however, included the plane’s identification information, which shows the aircraft is registered to Wings of Flight out of South Miami-Dade. State records show the company is registered to Dennis Haber, who didn’t respond to interview requests.
Eric Weiss, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, said they were aware of the report and monitoring the situation.
While someone falling from a plane is quite rare, 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 door would open is if it is not latched properly, or someone forces it open. The likelihood of someone falling from a plane and surviving is slim, Hedges said.
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, likely landing near a swamp of mangroves near Biscayne Bay. Investigators never found her body.
There have also been several incidents where a door has fallen off a plane midflight, including one last month in Monterey, Calif.
On Thursday, police would only say that they were investigating a death. But the man’s fall left a lot of questions, including what would make someone open a door mid-flight.
“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.”
Miami Herald reporter Hannah Sampson contributed to this report, which also includes comments from the Public Insight Network, an online community of people who have agreed to share their opinions with the Miami Herald and WLRN. Become a source at MiamiHerald.com/insight.