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Report points to bad weather as factor in fatal plane crash near Cedar Key

The pilot who flew a small plane from Brooksville to Cedar Key when it crashed into the Gulf of Mexico last month flew into the clouds even though he wasn't legally qualified to do so, according to a preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board.

Jasper Jerrels, 65, was flying a Piper Cherokee with his 17-year-old son Dylan and his fiance, Hue Singletary, 60, according to the Coast Guard. The plane fell off radar about seven miles south of Cedar Key on Feb. 12.

The report, which did not identify what caused the crash, said Jasper Jerrels was flying around 1,100 feet above the water, with hundreds of feet of cloud cover below him and thousands of feet above.

The pilot, who had logged about 600 hours of flight time, did not have an instrument rating, the NTSB said. That means he was only allowed to fly in weather conditions with good visibility. And a cursory analysis of the plane's control surfaces and engine seemed to indicate it was in working order before the crash.

"There seems to be no evidence of mechanical failure," said Al Diehl, a former NTSB investigator and aviation psychologist, who examined the report at the request of the Tampa Bay Times. "From all indications from the preliminary report, this looks like a classic accident of human error coupled with adverse weather."

Jasper Jerrels' body was found two days after the crash. Searchers found the plane's wreckage and Singletary's body five days later. Last week, the Alachua County Sheriff's Office said its dive team found human bone fragments near the site of the crash. Deputies believe the remains are those of the pilot's son, but are waiting for tests to confirm it.

It was cloudy over the accident site at the time of the crash, according to the NTSB. Clouds and fog extended from below 500 feet to about 4,000 feet, the report said. Once he found himself in those conditions, Diehl said, Jerrels could have turned around and contacted air traffic control for directions to clearer skies. Or he could have waited for the weather to pass before taking off. The trio was scheduled to have lunch on the island.

The circumstances of the crash reminded Diehl of the 1999 crash that killed John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy and her sister Lauren Bessette off Martha's Vineyard. Both crashes involved Pipers, poor visibility and pilots who were not instrument rated.

Kennedy Jr. died after his plane experienced "the graveyard spiral," Diehl said, when a pilot's inner ear makes them believe they are flying straight and level, but the wings are actually steeply banked while the plane corkscrews toward the ground. Diehl said it's possible the same thing happened on the flight to Cedar Key.

Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or jsolomon@tampabay.com. Follow @josh_solomon15.

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