Small plane wreckage found near Marineland; no indication of survivors

A 12-hour search by land, water and air ended just before noon Friday when a Piper PA44 Seminole trainer aircraft sought since the FAA first reported losing contact with it Thursday night was found upside-down in dense brush near Marineland and the Flagler/ St. Johns County line.


Crushed and cracked in half according to images just released by the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office, it appears those on board are dead, according to Sheriff Rick Staly.

The white airplane had been the subject of a search by multiple state, federal and local agencies since the FAA lost contact with it around 11 p.m. Thursday, Staly said. The plane was being operated by Sunrise Flight Academy in Ormond Beach, and its training director confirmed a student from Saudi Arabia and an instructor are both missing, according to First Coast News.

The FAA said that it lost contact with the Piper PA44 aircraft approximately 22 miles north of Ormond Beach. The Coast Guard said it went down in the vicinity of Pellicer Creek, after taking off from Brunswick and heading to Ormond Beach. Witnesses heard what they described as the sound of an engine sputtering as the aircraft flew by, according to First Coast News.

Just after 11:30 a.m., the main part of the aircraft was discovered by a news helicopter from Orlando’s WESH-TV, crashed in the 90-acre River to Sea Preserve, which straddles both sides of Florida and is owned jointly by Flagler County and the Town of Marineland.

Staly said he had been to the wreck site and it appears that the aircraft clipped a tree and flipped over. Only one victim’s body was visible when he joined investigators there Friday morning, one of its landing gear deployed on the flattened wreckage surrounded by dense palmettos, according to Sheriff’s Office photos.

“It is a very tragic ending to a search. You always hope you can find people alive. There is no indication we will find survivors,” Staly said. “… I can see one [body]. It is a very crumpled aircraft, and by how it’s lying, you can’t see into the fuselage.”

The 34-year-old flight school, which also calls itself Sunrise Aviation, is based at 740 Airport Road in Ormond Beach. Sunrise is also a flight training provider for Florida State College at Jacksonville’s degree programs in professional pilot technology, as well as at Polk State College at Lakeland, Florida. It has satellite training facilities at Jacksonville’s Cecil and Herlong Recreational airports. The academy says it is approved by the Federal Aviation Administration on its website.

Staly couldn’t confirm how many people were in the airplane as what was a search and rescue operation shifted to a recovery effort that will see a crane brought in to flip it over so investigators can get inside. Staff at the Sunrise Flight Academy’s satellite office at Craig Airport did not wish to comment when reached. But a sign on the front door of its Ormond Beach office said all school activities were cancelled Friday since it is “dealing with an emergency involving one of its aircraft,” according to an image tweeted by First Coast News. The note also states a meeting was set for Friday afternoon with all cadets and instructors.

The Flagler County Sheriff’s Office command post was relocated to the crash site, which is on dry land, to “protect the scene.” The National Transportation Safety Board will take over the crash investigation.

“The indications are no one survived. It is clear one person is deceased inside the aircraft,” Staly said. “We can’t get inside to see how many more.”

Flagler County Sheriff’s Office Chief Mark Strobridge, who saw the wrecked aircraft, said it will be “days or weeks” before investigators can officially confirm who was on board. But rescuers got to the site on foot and via Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission airboat to find the aircraft “fairly intact,” Staly said.

“It was a hard impact,” he said, adding there was no sign of fire.

The Piper Seminole is a 27.6-foot-long aircraft with two 180-hp engines on a 38.6-foot wingspan, and has been built for more than 20 years, according to the aircraft company website.

Coast Guard assisted in the search for survivors, a crew aboard an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter from Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater was launched at 2:15 a.m. St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office and Fire Rescue as well as the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office joined in the search efforts.

Dan Scanlan: (904) 359-4549