MARINELAND, Fla. – A small plane that crashed near the Flagler-St. Johns county line Thursday evening has been located and the victims have been identified, authorities said Tuesday afternoon.
A representative from an Ormond Beach flight school said the plane was on a routine training flight from the school.
Several law enforcement and government agencies searched the area, and the fuselage was found just before noon on the eastern shore of the intracoastal area, Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly said.
Deputies said two people were aboard the flight and there were no survivors.
Staly said the fuselage appeared to have gone straight down. Aerial images showed the plane upside down in a clump of trees.
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'
Patrick Murphy, a senior consultant with Sunrise Aviation Flight School, said the Piper Seminole plane's 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, who Flagler deputies identified Tuesday afternoon as Jeffrey Salan, 70, of Ormond Beach, and Mohammed Alanazi, 27, of Saudi Arabia.
"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 Friday.
"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."
Deputies confirmed that Salan was a flight instructor and Alanazi was a student pilot.
On a GoFundMe page created to help cover his funeral expenses, Salan's family shared his love for his wife and two children, as well as his passion for his career.
"Jeff had been a pilot and instructor for more than half of his 70 years of life, and he loved every minute of it," the page read. "He loved his career and his students, and there are hundreds, if not thousands, of pilots, both active and retired, who will tell you that they are alive today because of the skills and knowledge that they learned at Jeff Salan's side."
Click here to visit or donate to the GoFundMe.
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 that they saw the plane flying low, heard the engine sputter and then saw the aircraft spiral down, Flagler County Sheriff Rick 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.
Flagler County sheriffs' Chief Mark Strobridge 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.
Staly said that because the tide is out in the marsh area, there is 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 locations 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, indicating they expect to be working for some time.
"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 moistures, 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 around 11 p.m. Thursday.
Murphy said he knew of no recent mechanical issues, based on inspections of the plane.
Flightaware showed the plane took off at 7:58 p.m. from Ormond and would have landed at 8:42 p.m. Another site, FlightRadar24.com, showed the plane taking off from Brunswick. It doesn’t say what the destination was but showed 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 and is cooperating with the search.
"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 the U.S. Border Patrol were all taking part in the search. The FAA and NTSB are investigating the crash as well.
Authorities have been conducting a search and rescue using boats and helicopters, like the Coast Guard's MH-60 Jayhawk, to cover all grounds.
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