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Coast Guard: Debris found during search for missing plane from Brooksville

Search crews on Monday found debris in the Gulf of Mexico that may belong to this Piper Cherokee, last seen Sunday.
Search crews on Monday found debris in the Gulf of Mexico that may belong to this Piper Cherokee, last seen Sunday.
Published Feb. 14, 2017

Rescue crews located a small debris field in the Gulf of Mexico on Monday morning as they searched for a missing airplane and its three occupants.

About 9 a.m., a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission boat found an aircraft seat matching the description of the interior of the Piper Cherokee that went missing Sunday. Papers that appeared to come from an airplane cockpit also were located. The debris was found near where the plane dropped off radar.

No fuselage or other airplane parts were found, and none of the occupants was located. Crews were still in the search-and-rescue phase, Coast Guard officials said.

Authorities did not say how long they will continue searching. That depends on a mix of factors such as what is found and how likely crash victims are to be alive, said Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Ashley J. Johnson.

"We take all of that into consideration," she said.

The plane was reported missing Sunday after it took off from a Brooksville airport and never made it to its destination on Cedar Key, according to the Coast Guard.

Marine crews were using sonar to search the area where the debris was found, officials said.

Jasper Jerrels, 65, his 17-year-old son and 60-year-old Hue Singletary took off from Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport on Sunday morning in the Piper Cherokee headed for lunch on Cedar Key. The plane last appeared on radar about 7 miles south of the island at 11:06 a.m. Sunday, according to the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center.

The pilot of the aircraft did not file a flight plan for the trip, the Coast Guard said, and it took hours for rescuers to realize the plane was missing.

It wasn't until 5:21 p.m. Sunday that the Coast Guard's St. Petersburg sector was notified of a possible missing airplane by the Gainesville flight service center, a Federal Aviation Administration office that offers information and flight planning services to pilots. Officials there told the Coast Guard that they had received a call that the plane had not made its expected noon arrival on Cedar Key.

When a pilot files a flight plan, he or she notifies the FAA of the trip's destination and estimated time of arrival. While it was not required in this case, had one been filed, officials could have known sooner that the plane didn't make it to Cedar Key.

The Coast Guard confirmed it did not receive a beacon signal from an emergency locator transmitter. The transmitters are often aboard small, general aviation aircraft and are triggered by a crash or hard landing.

That could mean the Cherokee didn't have an emergency transmitter, its battery is dead or the landing wasn't rough enough to activate it.

At Crystal River, which is about 30 miles southeast of Cedar Key and roughly in between the island and Brooksville, there were scattered clouds at 1,500 to 2,000 feet about 11 a.m., according to the National Weather Service. The service does not have a weather station on Cedar Key.

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There were also no emergency or distress calls made from the plane over the radio, Coast Guard officials confirmed.

The Coast Guard searched throughout the night into Monday morning with a helicopter crew from the Clearwater air station and the crew of a 27-foot boat from the Yankeetown station.

Jerrels is president of a Tampa business, Bay Area Glass & Door Services, according to state business records. A woman who answered the phone there Monday said she couldn't provide details about Jerrels or the business.

Times staff writers Divya Kumar and Sam Putterman, and senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Josh Solomon at jsolomon@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4613. Follow @Josh_Solomon15.

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