A small private aircraft flew past its destination of Naples Municipal Airport with an apparently unconscious pilot at the controls Friday, and it was tracked by U.S. fighter jets before it crashed off the coast of Jamaica six hours after take-off.
The tragedy claimed the lives of a prominent Rochester, N.Y., couple.
Early Saturday morning Jamaican officials said a search and rescue team from the Jamaica Defense Force Air Wing have spotted and photographed "what is believed to be debris" from the crashed aircraft.
"Our pilots are very confident that the sighting is consistent with that of a high impact debris field, and this has been corroborated by a U.S. Coastguard C130 Aircraft involved in the operation," said Maj. Basil Jarrett, a spokesman with the Jamaica Defense Force.
Various federal agencies monitored the drama of the unresponsive plane above the Atlantic and the Caribbean and through the airspace of three countries. It ended when the Socata TBM700 single-engine turboprop went down about 14 miles northeast of Port Antonio, Jamaica, at 2:15 p.m., according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
On Friday Jarrett said two Jamaican aircraft as well as dive boats were scouring the crash site where water depth ranges from 4,900 to 6,500 feet. “We have seen an oil slick in the area that may indicate where the plane has gone down,” he said.
A U.S. Coast Guard C-130 also was taking part in the search and the Coast Guard Cutter Bernard C. Webber was expected to arrive early Saturday. The Webber and a Coast Guard helicopter will pick up the search at sunrise.
The Socata was registered to Buckingham Properties, a real estate development firm owned by developer Larry Glazer, 68, who was instrumental in the rebirth of downtown Rochester. An experienced pilot, Glazer was president of the TBM Owners and Pilots Association.
The Rochester paper said sources close to the Glazers reported the couple had planned to spend the weekend in Naples. Jane Glazer, 68, was the owner of a catalog company, QCI Direct. A statement from Rochester Mayor Lovely A. Warren called Glazer “the father of downtown development” and said the city had “lost two heroes.”
The light business and utility plane departed from Greater Rochester International Airport at 8:26 a.m., according to FlightAware, a flight tracking service. Its flight plan indicated it was headed to Naples, a beachside community that the Glazers often visited.
FAA air traffic controllers began tracking the Socata through U.S. airspace after the pilot stopped responding to radio calls about 10 a.m.
Glazer’s last communication, which was recorded on LiveATC.net, indicated that when the plane was over North Carolina, the pilot wanted to move to a lower altitude. “We need to get lower,” he said on the air traffic control broadcast. The pilot was instructed to call the Atlanta Center, which gave him clearance to descend to 20,000 feet and “maintain.”
The communication broke off after that.
When air controllers could no longer get a response from the pilot, NORAD dispatched two F-16 fighter planes from the McEntire Joint National Guard Base in South Carolina to investigate at around 10:40 a.m.
“We saw the windows were fogged up, which led us to believe the pilots were unconscious,” said NORAD Capt. Jennifer Stadnyk.
At one point, the plane was cruising along at 25,000 feet. That high altitude plus the frosted windows could indicate a loss of cabin pressure, said Brent Bowen, dean of the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University College of Aviation in Arizona.
“At that altitude, it’s very, very cold. The temperature would be below freezing,” Bowen said. “At that altitude, you are talking about a matter of a few minutes, three to five minutes of oxygen. It all depends on a person’s physiology.”
One of the military pilots tracking the Glazers’ plane commented: “I’m working on an oxygen system problem,” according to an audio of the conversation posted by the Democrat & Chronicle.
The military pilot also commented that he saw the small plane’s pilot breathing. “It may be a deal where depending on how fast they descend, he may regain consciousness once the aircraft starts to descend for fuel starvation,” he said.
The aircraft, said Bowen, would have been equipped with backup oxygen masks, but sometimes that doesn’t help.
At times, “in these circumstances, if there is a slow and gradual change, the person becomes groggy and doesn’t understand what’s happening to them. They may not think, ‘Oh, I may be losing pressure and I need to get my oxygen mask on.’”
At 11:30 a.m., the F-16 pilots handed off monitoring duties to two F-15 fighters from Homestead Air Reserve Base. They trailed the turboprop as it drifted over the Atlantic along the east coast of Florida and over the Bahamas before heading toward Cuba. The fighters broke off when the plane entered Cuban airspace.
They intended to pick up monitoring duties once the plane re-entered international airspace, but it crashed shortly after crossing the island and exiting Cuban territory south of Manzanillo in eastern Cuba.
The Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma reported that the plane passed very near Pico Turquino, the highest point on the island with an elevation of 6,746 feet.
Marie Harf, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman, said the United States had been in touch with Cuba and the Bahamas because the runaway aircraft had entered the airspace of both countries. She did not elaborate on how the countries might have cooperated.
Around noon, the State Department communicated the news about the plane to the Cuban Interests Section in Washington and Cuba’s foreign ministry was informed by the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. The Cubadebate website, which is friendly to the Cuban government, reported that U.S. authorities asked for permission to enter Cuban airspace if necessary and it was given.
“The stricken plane as well as the Coast Guard C-130 crossed through national territory,” Cubadebate said.
FlightAware showed that the plane had slowed and begun to descend at around 2 p.m.
The FAA said it believed the plane, which has a range of about 1,700 miles, ran out of fuel around that time.
The drifting flight of the Glazers’ plane recalled another tragedy in October 1999 when fighter planes were scrambled to track a Learjet carrying professional golfer Payne Stewart, winner of 11 PGA tour events, and four passengers.
After a pressurization failure when the Stewart plane was en route from Florida to Texas, it drifted across the United States for hours with no one at the controls. It finally crashed in a pasture in South Dakota after it ran out of fuel. All aboard died.