KINGSTON, Jamaica - Search-and-rescue crews searching off Jamaica's northeast coast on Saturday were stymied in efforts to solve the mystery of a small private plane carrying a prominent upstate New York couple taken on a ghostly 1,700-mile journey after the pilot was apparently incapacitated.
Jamaica Coast Guard Commander Antonette Wemyss-Gorman told a news conference Saturday afternoon that debris spotted off the coast on Friday evening could no longer be seen. "We would have to assume it may have sunk," she said.
Maj. Basil Jarrett of the Jamaica Defence Force had said earlier in the day that possible wreckage of the high-performance plane was spotted Friday evening by a military aircraft flying off the island's northeast coast, floating roughly 24 miles (38 kilometres) off the coastal town of Port Antonio.
Leroy Lindsay, director of Jamaica's civil aviation authority, said that the area where the private U.S. plane went down has depths of up to 2,000 metres (more than 6,500 feet). The Jamaican military on Friday had reported finding an oil slick in the general area where the plane vanished.
Lindsay said that once the wreckage is located, French authorities have offered to provide expertise and equipment to bring it up from the ocean depths because the airplane was French-made.
The single-engine turboprop Socata TBM700 was carrying Rochester real estate developer Laurence Glazer and his entrepreneur wife, Jane — both experienced pilots. On Friday, U.S. fighter pilots were launched to shadow the unresponsive aircraft observed the pilot slumped over and its windows frosting over. Officials say the plane slammed into the sea at least 14 miles (22 kilometres) off Jamaica's northeast coastline.
In a Friday statement, the Coast Guard 7th District command centre in Miami said three people were reportedly on board the plane. A 154-foot (47-meter) U.S. Coast Guard cutter and a helicopter crew are aiding in the Saturday search off Jamaica.
The plane's pilot had indicated there was a problem and twice asked to descend to a lower altitude before permission was granted by an air traffic controller, according to a recording of the radio conversation. Radio contact with the plane was lost shortly thereafter.
Son Rick Glazer said he could not confirm his parents were killed, adding that "we know so little."
But public officials offered their condolences for a couple described as a linchpin in efforts to rejuvenate an upstate New York city stung by the decline of corporate giants Kodak, Bausch & Lomb and Xerox.
"The Glazers were innovative and generous people who were committed to revitalizing downtown Rochester and making the city they loved a better place for all," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.
Laurence Glazer co-founded Buckingham Properties and served as chief executive and managing partner, working alongside two sons. Overall, the company owns more than 60 properties in the Rochester area and in central Florida.
His friend Harold Samoff said Saturday that he and Glazer got started in the real estate business in 1970 with a small apartment building, then went on to acquire and revitalize more and bigger properties on the inner-city periphery, reasoning that "just like blight can spread, improvement can spread, also." Samoff retired about a decade ago.
Glazer went on to more complex projects, such as converting former industrial properties into loft apartments and turning a shuttered hospital into offices. More recently, he bought Xerox Corp.'s Rochester tower — the city's tallest — and Bausch + Lomb's building.
Jane Glazer started QCI Direct, which produces two national retail catalogues selling household and other products. It made Rochester's Top 100 list of fastest growing privately held companies last year, according to its website.
The single-engine plane took off at 8:45 a.m. Friday from the Greater Rochester International Airport in New York en route to Naples, Florida. Air traffic controllers were last able to contact the pilot at 10 a.m., the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement.
On a recording made by LiveATC, a website that monitors and posts air traffic control audio recordings, the pilot is heard saying, "We need to descend down to about (18,000 feet). We have an indication that's not correct in the plane." A controller replied, "Stand by."
After a pause, the controller told the pilot to fly at 25,000 feet (7,620 metres). "We need to get lower," the pilot responded. "Working on that," the controller said.
Controllers then cleared the plane to descend to 20,000 feet (6,096 metres), a command which the pilot acknowledged. A couple minutes later, a controller radioed the plane by its tail number: "900 Kilo November, if you hear this transmission, ident" — identify yourself. There was no response.
At 10:40 a.m., two F-16 fighter jets were scrambled from a National Guard base in South Carolina to investigate, according to a statement by the North American Aerospace Defence Command. Those jets handed off monitoring duties around 11:30 a.m. to two F-15 fighters from Homestead Air Reserve Base in Florida.
The U.S. fighter jets followed the plane until it reached Cuban airspace, when they peeled off, said Preston Schlachter, a spokesman for the North American Aerospace Defence Command & US Northern Command.
On a LiveATC recording, the fighter pilots can be heard discussing the Socata pilot's condition.
"I can see his chest rising and falling right before I left," one said.
"It was the first time we could see that he was actually breathing. It may be a deal where, depending on how fast they meet them, he may regain consciousness once the aircraft starts descending for fuel ..." the fighter pilot said.
The pilot was speculating that the Socata pilot was suffering from hypoxia, or oxygen deprivation, but Schlachter said the Air Force doesn't know for certain that was the case.
The crash was the second in less than a week in which a private pilot has become unresponsive during a flight. On Aug. 30, a pilot lost consciousness and his plane drifted into restricted airspace over the nation's capital. Fighter jets were also launched in that case and stayed with the small aircraft until it ran out of fuel and crashed into the water.
Cases of pilots becoming unresponsive while their planes wander the sky are unusual, with probably not much more than a handful of such incidents over the last decade, said aviation safety expert John Goglia. They sometimes occur when a pilot becomes incapacitated by a heart attack or stroke, but more often the problem is insufficient cabin pressurization that causes the pilot to pass out, he said.
In 1999, the pilots of a Learjet carrying professional golfer Payne Stewart from Orlando, Florida, to Texas became unresponsive. The plane took a turn and wandered to South Dakota before running out of fuel and crashing into a field west of Aberdeen. Stewart and five others on board were killed. An NTSB investigation blamed the accident on depressurization.
Joan Lowy reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Jennifer Peltz in New York City; Carolyn Thompson in Buffalo, New York; George M. Walsh in Albany, New York; and Judith Ausuebel at the News Information Research Center in New York contributed to this report.
© Coast Reporter