PENSACOLA — A pilot whose Cessna followed a bizarre looping trail across the Gulf of Mexico before crashing about 120 miles off Pinellas County on Thursday appears to have been killed, officials say.
Coast Guard crews saw no signs that the pilot survived the crash about three hours after two F-15 fighter jets tried to make contact with him. Coast Guard Chief John Edwards said no life raft or other sign of life was seen.
The Cessna 421C later sank in about 1,500 feet of water. A C130 and a helicopter were looking for debris from the submerged plane, said Petty Officer Elizabeth Borderland. A Coast Guard cutter would remain in the area all night, she said.
Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said the plane was flying from Slidell, La., to Sarasota. She said controllers lost contact with the pilot at 9 a.m. and the Coast Guard said it went down about 12:10 p.m.
Authorities have not identified the pilot. But Bill Huete, a mechanic at the Slidell Airport, said Dr. Peter Hertzak, an OB-GYN who worked just northeast of New Orleans, was the only person who piloted the plane. Huete said the doctor's wife told him her husband was flying Thursday morning.
Huete described Hertzak as an excellent pilot.
"He flew by the book and he didn't scrimp on maintenance," Huete said.
Family and colleagues were not commenting Thursday evening.
Two F-15 fighter jets tried to make contact with the plane at 8:45 a.m. and were flying with it and monitoring it, but weren't able to hail the pilot, said North American Aerospace Defense Command spokesman John Cornelio. The jets' pilots reported that the Cessna's windshield was iced over and that the plane was fluctuating between 25,000 and 35,000 feet.
A computer-generated image provided by FlightAware, a private aviation flight path service, shows the plane traveling in several circles over the gulf for hours before going down.
The two F-15s from the New Orleans National Guard were already on a mission over the gulf, Coast Guard Chief John Edwards said in a news release. The Jacksonville Air Traffic Control Center asked the military if jets could check on the plane, which was flying in circles near one of the warning areas over the gulf of Eglin Air Force Base, Edwards said.