KINGSTON, Jamaica (AP) – A search-and-rescue operation resumed at first light Saturday off Jamaica's northeast coast as crews hope to solve the mystery of a small private plane carrying a prominent upstate New York couple who were taken on a ghostly 1,700-mile journey after the pilot was apparently incapacitated at the controls.
Maj. Basil Jarrett of the Jamaica Defense Force said early Saturday that possible wreckage of the high-performance plane was spotted Friday evening by a military aircraft flying off the island's northeast coast. He said military personnel were trying to recover the floating debris roughly 24 miles off the coastal town of Port Antonio and it was too early to determine whether it was indeed wreckage from the plane.
"However, the debris appears consistent with the missing aircraft, and this has been corroborated by the United States Coast Guard," Jarrett said early Saturday. "The recovery effort is currently under way."
Jamaica Coast Guard Commander Antonette Wemyss-Gorman told reporters that the area of the Atlantic where the private U.S. plane went down has depths of roughly 1,500 to 2,000 feet (457 to 610 meters). As darkness fell Friday, search operations were suspended until dawn after the Jamaican military reported finding an oil slick in the general area where the plane vanished.
The single-engine turboprop Socata TBM700 was carrying Rochester real estate developer Laurence Glazer and his entrepreneur wife, Jane — both experienced and enthusiastic 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 Atlantic at least 14 miles off Jamaica's northeast coastline.
In a Friday statement, the Coast Guard 7th District command center 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 a short time later.
Son Rick Glazer said that his parents were both licensed pilots. He said he could not confirm they were killed, adding that "we know so little."
But numerous 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.
"They cannot be replaced," said Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy, a former Rochester mayor.
Sen. Charles Schumer called the crash "a massive and heartbreaking loss for this community."
"It deeply saddens me that Rochester has now lost two of its most indomitable, industrious visionaries," Schumer said.
Laurence Glazer co-founded Buckingham Properties and served as its chief executive and managing partner, working alongside two sons. In a July interview with Rochester's City Newspaper, he described optimism for Rochester.
"My vision starts with the idea that downtown can come back and it will be vibrant," Glazer told the newspaper, which said Buckingham Properties controls nearly 13 million square feet of real estate space.
A sign taped to the company's door Friday said it was closed. Model airplanes could be seen lining an interior windowpane in a darkened office. Glazer had been president of the TBM Owners and Pilots Association and active on the boards of numerous civic organizations.
"Larry spends some of his spare time on the ground — gardening around his house with his wife, Jane; and some in the sky — flying his plane," a biography on the company website said.
Jane Glazer started QCI Direct, a business that now employs 100 workers, the Democrat and Chronicle newspaper reported. The company, which produces two national retail catalogs selling household and other products, made Rochester's Top 100 list of fastest growing privately held companies last year, according to its website.
"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.
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. The agency said it had not confirmed the number of people aboard, although the U.S. Coast Guard put the number at three.
On a recording made by LiveATC, a website that monitors and posts air traffic control audio recordings, the pilot can be 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 meters). "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 meters), 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 Defense 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 Defense 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.
National Transportation Safety Board officials were in contact with authorities in Jamaica but had not made a decision as of late Friday whether to investigate the incident, board spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said.
The crash was the second in less than a week in which a private pilot has become unresponsive during a flight. On Saturday, 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 Atlantic.
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. Sometimes the incidents are due to a pilot becoming incapacitated by a heart attack or stroke, but more often the problem is insufficient cabin pressurization that causes the pilot and any passengers 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 all the way 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.