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Downed private plane sinks in Gulf of Mexico, no sign pilot survived

The U.S. Coast Guard is trying to recover the pilot after his plane went down after flying in circles for nearly three hours. NBC's Pete Williams reports.

A small plane with an apparently incapacitated pilot that crashed just after noon Eastern Time in the Gulf of Mexico Thursday has sunk, the Associated Press reported, citing Coast Guard officials. Crews flying over the site saw no signs that its pilot survived the crash, the report said. 

The twin-engine propeller Cessna 421 went down Thursday about three hours after two F-15 fighter jets tried to make contact with the unresponsive pilot, who was thought to be the only person on the plane.

The pilot was identified as Peter Hertzak of Slidell, La., NBC station WSDU of New Orleans reported.

Coast Guard Chief John Edwards said the plane landed right-side up on the ocean surface and floating, but aircraft monitoring the scene did not see a life raft deploy and never made contact with the pilot, the AP reported.

Air traffic controllers alerted the Coast Guard after they lost radio contact with the pilot about 9 a.m. EDT. The aircraft was circling erratically over the Gulf of Mexico, according to Coast Guard District 8 Chief Petty Officer John Edwards in New Orleans.

Tracker shows plane's erratic flight path

Air Force jets dispatched to look into the plane were unable to see the pilot because of fog and icing that obscured the plane's windows, Coast Guard officials said. The icing is seen as a possible sign that the aircraft lost cabin pressure and the pilot was rendered unconscious.

A search-and-rescue operation has been launched to locate the Cessna. NBC's Pete Williams reports.

The two F-15s from the New Orleans National Guard were already on a mission over the Gulf, according to the AP report, citing a release from Edwards. The Jacksonville Air Traffic Control Center asked the military if jets could check on the plane, which was orbiting near one of Eglin Air Force Base's warning areas over the Gulf, Edwards said. Eglin is on Florida's Panhandle.

A federal official says the plane took off Thursday morning from Slidell, La., en route to Sarasota, Fla.

It flew until just after noon and then crashed into the water 120 miles west of Tampa, Fla., according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

Daniel Compton / airport-data.co

The Cessna that went down in the Gulf of Mexico Thursday.

In a search and rescue effort launched in the hours before the plane crashed, the Coast Guard dispatched an HC-144 Ocean Sentry from Mobile, Ala., an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter from Clearwater, Fla., and the Coast Guard Cutter Coho, an 87-foot patrol boat homeported in Panama City, Fla., the Coast Guard web site said.

In a previous incident involving a "ghost plane,'' in 1999, the pilot — professional golfer Payne Stewart — and five passengers were incapacitated when their Learjet lost cabin pressure. The plane flew on for four hours before finally crashing in rural South Dakota. All six people were killed.

NBC's Pete Williams and Jay Blackman contributed to this report.

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