KINGSTON, Jamaica (AP) — Shadowed much of the way by two U.S. fighter jets, a small plane with an unresponsive pilot flew a ghostly 1,700-mile journey down the East Coast and through Cuban airspace on Friday before finally crashing in the waters off Jamaica. The fate of the pilot and anyone else aboard was not immediately known.
Maj. Basil Jarrett of the Jamaican Defense Force said the plane went down about 14 miles (22 kilometers) northeast of the northern coastal town of Port Antonio and the military sent two aircraft and a dive team to investigate the area where the plane went down.
A U.S. C-130 aircraft is also flying over the crash site and a U.S. Coast Guard cutter is on the way, according to Guard Petty Officer Jon-Paul Rios.
“None of us have found anything at this time,” Rios said Friday at about 4:40 p.m. EDT.
The plane, which took off at 8:45 a.m. EDT from the Greater Rochester International Airport in New York, was carrying a prominent real estate developer and his wife, the couple’s son said.
Rick Glazer said that his parents, Larry and Jane Glazer, were both licensed pilots. He said he can’t confirm they were killed, adding that “we know so little.”
Larry Glazer ran the development firm Buckingham Properties. He owned the high performance single-engine turboprop Socata TBM700 he was flying and was president of the TBM Owners and Pilots Association and active in Rochester civic affairs.
According to Buckingham’s website, “Larry spends some of his spare time on the ground — gardening around his house with his wife, Jane; and some in the sky — flying his plane.”
Air traffic controllers were last able to contact the pilot of the plane at 10 a.m. EDT, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement. The agency said it had not confirmed the number of people aboard.
The pilot had filed a flight plan with the FAA to fly from Rochester to Naples, Florida. Fighter jets were scrambled at 11:30 a.m. EDT and followed the plane until it reached Cuban airspace, when they peeled off, said Preston Schlachter, a spokesman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command & US Northern Command. FlightAware, an aviation tracking website, showed the plane over the Caribbean south of Cuba at about 2 p.m. EDT.
It finally came down after flying more than 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometers).
FlightAware identified the plane’s tail number as N900KN. FAA records show the plane, a model that sells new for $3.5 million in its standard version, is owned by a company based at the same address as a real estate firm in Rochester.
The Air Force and Transportation Security Administration contacted Rochester airport officials about the plane at about 10:45 a.m., according to Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks. The airport referred all inquiries to the FAA.
The incident is the second time in less than a week that private pilot has become unresponsive during a flight. On Saturday, a pilot lost consciousness and his plane drifted into restricted airspace over the nation’s capital. Fighter jets were also launched in that case and stayed with the small aircraft until it ran out of fuel and crashed Saturday into the Atlantic.
Cases of pilots becoming unresponsive while their planes wander the sky are unusual, with probably not much more than a handful of such incidents over the last decade, said aviation safety expert John Goglia. Sometimes the incidents are due to a pilot becoming incapacitated by a heart attack or stroke, but more often the problem is insufficient cabin pressurization that causes the pilot and any passengers to pass out, he said.
Pilots are supposed to check that the cabin pressurization is correctly set before takeoff, but there have been cases where they have forgotten to do that or the pressurization level has been improperly set, said Goglia, a former National Transportation Safety Board member. If cabin pressure drops too low, there won’t be enough oxygen per cubic foot in the cabin and any people aboard will fall lose consciousness, he said. In such cases, it’s likely that those on board will die from loss of oxygen before the plane runs out of fuel and crashes, he said.
Mechanical problems or a window or fuselage leak can also lead to rapid cabin depressurization. When that happens, the time of useful consciousness a pilot has in which to react is measured in seconds, Goglia said.
In 1999, the pilots of a Learjet carrying professional golfer Payne Stewart from Orlando, Florida, to Texas became unresponsive. The plane took a turn and wander all the way to South Dakota before running out of fuel and crashing into a field west if Aberdeen. Stewart and five others on board were killed. An NTSB investigation blamed the accident on depressurization.
Joan Lowy reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Ben Fox in Miami and Carolyn Thompson in Buffalo, NY, and Judith Ausuebel in New York contributed to this report.
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