By DAVID WARREN
DALLAS (AP) – The pilot of a small plane that failed to land at its Central Texas destination and was later tracked by fighter jets flying over the Gulf of Mexico appeared unresponsive and may have been suffering from a lack of oxygen, authorities said Thursday.
The pilot of the Cirrus SR-22 took off from Wiley Post Airport in Oklahoma City Wednesday afternoon after filing a flight plan to land in Georgetown, Texas, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) north of Austin.
It’s unclear why the plane never landed in Georgetown. Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Lynn Lunsford said the plane kept flying and was last observed on radar 219 miles (352 kilometers) northwest of Cancun, Mexico, flying at 15,000 feet (4,600 meters).
Coast Guard spokeswoman Lexie Preston in New Orleans said Thursday that Coast Guard aircraft are searching for the plane in a broad area off the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.
After the pilot stopped responding to air traffic controllers, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, launched two F-16 fighters from a base in Houston and made contact with the plane, NORAD spokesman Michael Kucharek said. The fighters flew in front of the plane, dropped flares and performed other military maneuvers in an effort to gain the pilot’s attention, but the pilot, who was the only person on board, appeared to be unresponsive, he said.
The F-16s became low on fuel and were replaced by two F-15 fighters from New Orleans. The F-15s stayed with the plane for a time but later returned to base because of darkness and their proximity to Mexican air space.
“We didn’t deem the plane to be a threat and that’s normally what we’re looking for,” Kucharek said.
The Eighth Coast Guard District, referencing a NORAD report, said the pilot appeared to be suffering from hypoxia, in which the brain is deprived of adequate oxygen. The condition can cause confusion, nausea, breathlessness and hallucinations. If left untreated, it can be fatal.
Authorities have not released the pilot’s name.
According to FAA regulations , a civil aircraft pilot flying solo must use supplemental oxygen if flying for longer than 30 minutes above 12,500 feet (3,800 meters), and for an entire flight if flying above 14,000 feet (4,300 meters).
The plane is registered to Oklahoma-based Abide Aviation. A public phone listing for Abide could not be found.
Karen Carney, a spokeswoman for Oklahoma City’s department of airports, said Abide Aviation doesn’t appear to be a tenant of the airport but that it might have been subleasing hangar space. She didn’t have any additional information available.
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