Authorities have suspended the search for the body of the Cessna 421 pilot who crashed into the Gulf of Mexico Thursday afternoon after remaining unresponsive to air traffic control calls for several hours.
The Cessna 421 took off from Slidell, Louisiana, on Thursday morning and headed southeast over the Gulf, but drew concern from air traffic controllers around 9 a.m. when they lost contact with the pilot. As the aircraft circled erratically over the Gulf in the region near Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, controllers at the Jacksonville Air Traffic Control Center requested two F-15s flying in the area to assess the situation.
According to a report from the Associated Press, the Air Force pilots witnessed the aircraft, with iced-over windows, vacillating between 25,000 and 35,000 feet.
The airplane went down around noon approximately 120 miles west of Tampa, remaining intact and upright before beginning to sink into the 1,500-foot-deep water. Members of the Coast Guard who witnessed the accident from above saw no signs that the pilot was still alive after the crash-landing.
The airplane had flight planned for 27,000 feet and 215 knots along a Gulf of Mexico high-altitude route. The flight from Slidell, Louisiana, to Bradenton, Florida, was expected to last around three and a half hours.
A 65-year-old doctor from the New Orleans area has been identified as the pilot flying the 421, which is a pressurized piston twin with a service ceiling of around 30,000 feet and a regulatory ceiling of 28,000 feet. The aircraft is typically flown in the low flight levels.
While the cause of the crash is still unknown, comparisons to the 1999 crash that killed golfer Payne Stewart and five other occupants aboard a Learjet after the aircraft lost cabin pressure over the Gulf have already begun.