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The search continues after a small plane - which had crashed before - disappears over a forest.
Published Apr. 10, 2014

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.

"It's a lot of fun to fly," he said, "but it's an airplane you have to keep your hands on. It's a lot like a car that way - if you take your hands off the steering wheel, it's going to drift."

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. "That's one of the beauties of small planes. They can land in fields or on roads."

The canopy of the plane, though, isn't made for bailing out - it opens to the side. Also, the plane itself isn't equipped with a parachute.

About 125 people from the Florida Wildlife Commission and 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.

Fortuna feels that not hearing from Weiss for such a long time is not a good sign.

Search efforts began Monday.