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Air Safety InstituteBy David Jack Kenny

Sometimes it simply isn’t possible to pin down an accident’s precise cause. Engines that quit in flight with plenty of fuel available run just fine on test stands afterward. Losses of control in flight can’t always be attributed to weather or any problem with the flight controls, and wreckage found on mountainsides may be too badly fragmented for investigators to ever piece together exactly what went wrong.

And a few aircraft simply disappear.

It happened in Oregon in 2007. A 24,000-hour ATP told his wife that he was going out to the airport to do a few touch-and-goes in his new Sport Cub. His motorcycle was found in the hangar, but neither airplane nor pilot has ever been seen again. In Florida, it’s happened twice in the past three years. A Cirrus SR22 took off from St. Petersburg, Fla., in December 2009, turned west over the Gulf, and climbed to 9,900 feet. It maintained that altitude, flying west, until radar contact was lost 150 miles offshore.

And on the morning of March 1, a neighbor saw a Cessna 182P take off from a residential airpark west of Boynton Beach, Fla. It returned after 15 minutes, then departed again 10 minutes later, this time turning south. That was the last known sighting of the airplane. A later analysis of radar returns found a VFR target that appeared just south of the field at 10:39 a.m. It flew east to the coast, then southeast over the Atlantic. Mode C was lost 15 minutes later, but primary returns continued until 11:02 a.m. At that point the target was well out to sea, 23 miles east-southeast of Boca Raton.

The Cessna’s owner was not on board. He did not live at the airpark. He told police that he’d purchased the property chiefly for its hangar, which was large enough to house his various aircraft. A live-in caretaker looked after the house and did various odd jobs for the owner and other friends. The caretaker had a private pilot certificate and about 2,000 hours of career flight experience and the owner allowed him to fly the Skylane. Normally, though, he requested specific permission for each flight, and checked in by telephone on his return.

This flight was different. It wasn’t until March 6, five days after the disappearance, that the owner learned his airplane was missing. In his statements to the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and the NTSB, he recalled making several unsuccessful attempts to contact his caretaker beginning on Feb. 29. All of his calls went straight to voice mail. On March 6 he checked the IP camera used to monitor the hangar’s interior; the handyman’s truck was there, but the Cessna 182 was not. He then called a neighbor, who found the door unlocked but no one home. Shortly after arriving at the airpark himself—finding the television on, “rotten blueberries in the blender,” his friend’s driver’s license, pilot certificate, and other ID cards on the kitchen counter, his wallet in the trash can underneath, and his keys and headset in the space where the airplane was normally parked—he contacted the police to report a missing person.

The search of the house turned up some other surprises. A medications bag contained five different prescriptions and the empty bag from a sixth. One was for high blood pressure and another was for elevated cholesterol; the other four were a combination of antidepressants and drugs typically prescribed for insomnia and anxiety attacks. None, as it turned out, had ever been reported on his medical applications. The missing prescription was for 30 tablets of temazepam, described in the NTSB report as “a hypnotic agent … used for the short-term treatment of insomnia.” It has not been found.

Several witnesses said that he suffered from chronic pain, which a longtime friend said afflicted his wrists, hips, and knees. He’d also complained of financial difficulties and talked of “starting again” in Australia or the Bahamas. About a year earlier, he’d told his girlfriend that if he ever disappeared, it would be over water so no one would be able to find him.

So far, no one has. Because no trace of either airplane or pilot has ever been recovered, the NTSB has listed the probable cause as “Undetermined; the airplane and pilot are missing.” While it’s tempting to read between the lines, it’s also worth remembering that fact.