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Debris found at sea linked to missing plane

TAMPA — Coast Guard rescuers found two debris fields Monday belonging to a small plane that crashed into the Gulf of Mexico over the weekend.

Officials planned to continue searching overnight for the two men thought to have been in the plane, Darien Peckham, 35, and Zachary Schlitt, 28.

On Monday, rescue crews found a seat and a flight bag containing aviation headphones, said U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Tasha Tully.

It was "stuff from the plane," she said.

Public records show that Peckham has a Tampa address, and Schlitt lives in West Palm Beach.

Peckham's sister said she and her parents called the Coast Guard every half hour for updates Monday and remained hopeful the men would be found alive. She last spoke to her brother on Thanksgiving.

"He was a pretty magnificent guy," said Heatherley Peckham, of Port St. Lucie. "We're all just praying."

She said her brother and Schlitt were flying back from the football game between the University of Florida and Florida State University in Tallahassee.

At about 6:45 p.m. Sunday, an air traffic controller in Jacksonville reported that a 45-year-old twin-engine, fixed-wing Beech 35 Debonair aircraft, traveling from Tallahassee to Vandenberg Airport in Tampa, lost contact about 20 miles southwest of Yankeetown, according to the Coast Guard.

Tully said there were 10- to 12-foot seas with 20- to 25-knot winds and strong thunderstorms Sunday in the area where the plane disappeared.

Along with boat crews from Coast Guard stations in Yankeetown and Sand Key, search crews aboard a Jayhawk helicopter and a HC-130 Hercules have been searching for the men.

Coast Guard officials are compiling flight data — including the men's physical fitness, what clothes they wore and whether they had safety equipment — to determine how long the men can survive in the water, Tully said.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, Schlitt has had a pilot's license since 1997. Peckham has been licensed since 2005. The FAA site shows the 45-year-old plane is registered to Eagle Squadron Inc., a Hillsborough County flying club.

Kathleen Bergen, an FAA spokeswoman, said the group has passed all radar information to the Coast Guard. The FAA can access recorded conversations between the pilot and the air traffic control center, but has not released that information yet

Heatherley Peckham said her brother has been flying his own plane for nearly a decade.

She works for her brother's medical consulting company, Gamma Probe Consulting, which implements cancer-detecting technology at hospitals around the state. She said her brother flew to different cities every week to work with surgeons. Darien Peckham got involved in medicine after watching his mother, a nurse, care for patients.

Dr. John Cox, who has known Peckham for a decade, said he began his career at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute in Tampa as a nuclear medicine technologist. Moffitt representatives referred questions about Peckham to Cox, who works as an oncologist at Tampa Bay Breast Care Specialists.

Peckham, a graduate of the University of South Florida, was involved in early research of a breast cancer-detection technique called sentinel lymph node biopsy. He invested in specialized equipment, which he took via plane to hospitals. They hired Peckham to work with surgeons during biopsy operations.

"He traveled, not just for enjoyment, but because he had something where he could help people," Cox said.

Peckham also was a bodybuilder. One of his patients once gushed to Cox, "Oh, you sent this hunky guy in here to help me with my breast cancer!"

But he could be shy too. He hadn't gotten up the courage yet to propose to his girlfriend, Karen Hohman, though he was deeply in love and hoped to marry her, Cox said Peckham told him.

Hohman's sister, Debra Schwartz, said Monday her sister wasn't ready to talk.

Cox said he thinks Peckham flew back from Tallahassee Sunday night because he had an appointment Monday.

"It's unbelievable that two qualified pilots couldn't control the plane. It must have been something really bad," Cox said.

Ron Schlitt said Monday his family was optimistic about the fate of his son, a commercial real estate developer for a Clearwater firm.

"We're hoping for the best right now," said Schlitt, of St. George Island in Franklin County. "He was a bright young man, college degree, good job."

Zachary Schlitt, a University of Florida graduate, was a real estate acquisitions manager at Boos Development Group.

Rob Boos, president of the company, said Schlitt developed sites for CVS Pharmacy branches, Publix stores and Starbucks coffee houses.

"The demeanor at our main office in Clearwater is not just one of holding hope, but of absolutely just shock and sadness," Boos said. "I think that says a lot about the impact on the folks he's worked with."

Debris found at sea linked to missing plane 12/01/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 2, 2008 5:36pm]
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