FLAGLER COUNTY, Fla. - After hours of searching from the air and ground, the wreckage of an Ormond Beach flight school plane that went down late Thursday night was found in a wooded area of a state park on the eastern shore of the Intracoastal Waterway near the Flagler-St. Johns county line, authorities said.
A representative from Sunrise Aviation Fight School told News4Jax that the Piper PA44, with a 70-year-old instructor and 27-year-old student pilot from Saudi Arabia on board, was on a night training flight.
The fuselage was spotted by a helicopter about noon Friday, and Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly said it appeared to have gone straight down. Aerial images showed the plane upside down in a clump of trees.
Staly said one body could be seen with the wreckage and there did not appear to be any survivors.
"The families of the student, all of whom are in Saudi Arabia, and the family of our local instructor are all distraught, as you can image," said Patrick Murphy, director of training for Sunrise Aviation.
The National Transportation Safety Board has taken over the investigation, and Staly did not have a timetable for when the wreckage will be removed for analysis.
“It is sad that our efforts did not lead to the rescue of the occupants of the aircraft,” Staly said.
Flight school 'shaken'
Murphy said the flight originated in Ormond Beach and was headed to St. Simons Island, where it was set to land and immediately return. Its last communication was with a Daytona Beach control tower just before 11 p.m.
"They checked in indicating they had the automated weather here at Ormond Beach. That's the last call," Murphy said.
The flight school canceled all activities Friday and held a meeting to brief instructors and students on the crash. Murphy said it was the school's first fatal crash in decades.
"We're shaken. The owner is shaken. Everyone here involved is," Murphy said. "I mean, it's not a routine thing. It does happen, but it's never happened to us before."
The student had logged more than 200 hours of flight time.
Murphy said that the school was established in 1983 and has been under its current ownership for 15 years. There are 12 instructors on staff and 70 students enrolled.
"It would be our first fatality ever. We take safety very seriously," Murphy said.
Murphy said he's been in contact with the families of the two people on the training flight.
"It’s a terrible thing to have to inform them, and even at this point, with the family in Saudi Arabia, to have to tell them the bodies have not been identified and we’re waiting for the police to give us that one last confirmation," Murphy said.
"We're really sad for the families. The owner of the company is very close to the family of the flight instructor," Murphy said. "We get close to all of the students who come over here for six months, a year, to spend with us -- to go back home to launch their careers of flying in the airlines or in their own countries, so they're like family as well. So, we are grieving along with them."
Plane sputters, spirals
According to the U.S. Coast Guard, witnesses saw the plane crash in a swampy area near Marineland in the Matanzas River. A witness reported seeing the plane flying low, hearing the engine sputter and then seeing the aircraft spiral down, Staly said.
Neighbors in the area described hearing what they said sounded like a motorcycle revving its engine late Thursday night.
"I heard a strange noise. It sounded almost like a grating sound or like a power drill sound, and then I heard a couple of thuds," said one woman, who lives nearby and asked not to be identified. "It wasn’t so unusual -- loud or something -- that you thought it was something terrible happening, and so I just went back to bed and didn’t think about it until the news people, some people, came this morning and said there had been an accident."
A debris field was located Friday morning, and Staly said the piece of plane that he saw appeared to be a tail wing.
Chief Mark Strobridge, with the Flagler County Sheriff's Office, said about 9:30 a.m. that more pieces have been found, but he could not confirm if they were from the missing aircraft because the pieces did not have any identifying markers on them.
Staly said that because the tide was out in the marsh area, there was only about 6 inches of water, making it difficult to search the area and increasing the possibility that searchers could miss the plane.
“It's very possible that we have been over the crash site and just can't see it, because it's tall weeds, if you will, marsh land, or it could be under the marsh,” Staly said.
He pointed to a similar crash in 2014 that took a week to find the wreckage because of the crash site's location near Pellicer Creek.
"The muck that it crashed into just kind of sucked the plane in," Staly said of the 2014 crash.
A man who works at Marineland Marina told News4Jax that he got a call from someone saying that the rescue crews needed supplies, like converters and power adapters.
"It's a difficult working environment," Brandon Miller said. "The problem is, it's incredibly shallow and it's going to be, where it's not moisture, it's thick, sucking mud."
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the Piper PA44 was approximately 22 miles north of Ormond Beach when it lost radar contact.
Murphy said he knew of no recent mechanical issues, based on inspections of the plane.
Flightaware shows the plane took off at 7:58 p.m. from Ormond Beach and would have landed at 8:42 p.m. Another site, FlightRadar24.com, shows the plane taking off from Brunswick. It doesn’t say what the destination was, but shows the flight path end around Palm Coast.
Murphy confirmed that the plane is typically used for flight training. He said the flight school is in contact with investigators.
"This is a Piper Seminole. This is the universal twin-engine training airplane used around the world. It's built out in Vero Beach. No one uses it for anything else. It's not utilized for personal transportation," aviation expert Ed Booth said.
Members of the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office, St. Augustine Police Department, Flagler County Sheriff's Office, Volusia County Sheriff's Office, U.S. Coast Guard, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and U.S. Border Patrol were all taking part in the search. The FAA and NTSB are also investigating the crash.
Authorities conducted a search and rescue operations using boats and helicopters, such as the Coast Guard's MH-60 Jayhawk, to cover all ground.
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