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Pilot is presumed dead as plane crashes in gulf

A pilot flying a Cessna across the Gulf of Mexico stopped responding to radio calls, including those from two F-15 aviators who flew alongside and monitored the plane for hours, as it made a corkscrew path through the sky before crashing into the gulf Thursday, authorities said.

Coast Guard crews saw no signs that the pilot -- the lone person aboard -- survived. The plane landed right-side up on the surface of the water and had been floating right after the crash, said Chief John Edwards. However, the Cessna 421C later sank into the gulf about 120 miles west of Tampa, Fla., in about 1,500 feet of water.

The plane was headed from Slidell, La., to Sarasota, Fla., and controllers lost contact with it at about 9 a.m., said Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen. The plane went down at about 12:10 p.m., and authorities were investigating but have released no information about what may have gone wrong.

Air National Guard jets from New Orleans were already on a mission over the gulf when Jacksonville air traffic controllers asked the military if it could check on the plane that was orbiting near one of Eglin Air Force Base's warning areas over the gulf, Edwards said. The fighter jets caught up with the plane and reported that it was fluctuating between 25,000 and 35,000 feet and that its windshield was iced over.

They could not hail the pilot, who has not yet been identified.

Bill Huete, a mechanic at the Slidell Airport, said Dr. Peter Hertzak, an OB-GYN who worked in the community just northeast of New Orleans, was the only person who piloted the plane. Huete said the doctor's wife told him her husband was flying the plane that morning.

A computer-generated image provided by FlightAware, a private aviation flight path service, shows the plane traveling in several circles over the gulf before going down.