Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Public safety

Authorities still searching for missing Zephyrhills pilot

Authorities continued the search Wednesday for Theodore Weiss, the 74-year-old pilot who disappeared last weekend somewhere over the Withlacoochee State Forest.

Weiss' Sonex experimental kit plane left the Dunnellon/Marion County Airport on Saturday afternoon, bound for Zephyrhills Municipal Airport. The plane disappeared from radar in a dead zone over the forest.

Dave Fortuna, a 63-year-old pastor in Louisiana, said he built the plane by hand in the early 2000s.

"The crazy part is that this plane has been crashed before," he said.

Fortuna said he flew the plane for about 350 hours and then sold it to a man in Atlanta in 2003. That man sold it again to someone in Texas. The Texas man, he said, cartwheeled the plane when it was coming in for a landing in 2005 and totaled it.

In 2006, Fortuna said, he got a call from some men saying they were going to buy the wreckage.

"Evidently, they rebuilt it," he said. That's when Weiss bought it.

Even though the plane is several sales and many years removed from him, Fortuna is still listed as the manufacturer. The plane, he said, is a popular model among pilots who fly noncommercial light aircraft.

Fortuna said he can imagine a number of scenarios that could have resulted in a crash. If Weiss got dizzy or passed out, the plane would simply go down.

"The good news is, if the engine just died, the plane can just glide. You could put it down in the tops of trees even," he said.

About 125 people, including members of the Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Sumter, Levy and Marion county sheriff's offices congregated at a command post off Lecanto Highway on Wednesday morning, according to the Citrus Sheriff's Office. They started again to comb the forest — on foot, on all-terrain vehicles, on horseback and in helicopters — for any sign of Weiss or his plane.

The recovery efforts are complicated by the lack of a signal from an emergency locator translator, or ELT, on board, which should activate either on impact or with high gravitational forces.

Fortuna said the ELT is battery-powered and wouldn't go off if the battery was dead. Also, the plane could've gone into a spin, which wouldn't set off the ELT.

"The plane kind of comes down like a Frisbee rather than flying into the ground," he said.

Search efforts began Monday.

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