ALBANY, Ind. — A single-engine plane crashed into an Indiana cornfield Wednesday after the pilot, who was seen slumped over at the controls, lost consciousness and the aircraft flew out of control, officials said.
Military officials do not believe the crash was terrorism-related but instead said the pilot may have had a health problem or been suffering from a lack of oxygen. F-16s under direction of U.S. North American Aerospace Defense Command intercepted the plane and followed it for about an hour until it crashed.
Indiana State Police Sgt. Rod Russell said the pilot, who was the only person aboard the plane, died in the crash but that the pilot's name would not be released until the body is positively identified. No one on the ground was injured when it crashed.
David Lykins, 54, of Muncie said he and his nephew were doing construction work on a nearby home when they saw the plane, its wings pointed down, fly in three circles overhead before it clipped some trees and crashed into the field.
"That's when all the debris started flying and a big puff of smoke came up," he said.
Lykins said he called 911 while his nephew ran ahead through the cornfield to reach the plane, which was engulfed in flames and clouds of smoke.
The plane departed from Grand Rapids, Mich., and then flew north to Traverse City, Mich., said FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro in Chicago. It turned around in Traverse City was flying back to Grand Rapids when it lost communication with ground air traffic controllers, Molinaro said.
The plane crashed about 12:40 p.m. EDT in a field in a rural area of eastern Indiana, about 60 miles northeast of Indianapolis and 185 miles south of Grand Rapids, NORAD said. John Erickson, a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Homeland Security, said the aircraft crashed on its own.
Controllers in Indianapolis reported the plane had been circling with the pilot slumped over in the seat at about 25,000 feet, said Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
Church said controllers in Minneapolis had earlier given the pilot the OK to fly at that altitude, strongly suggesting the pilot intentionally flew to that altitude and then lost consciousness. Pilots of the F-16s deployed after air traffic controllers lost contact with the small plane saw the pilot slumped over, officials said.
The airplane is registered to David J. Eyde, whose address is listed as the unicorporated community of Ada, Mich., just southeast of Grand Rapids. A man who answered the phone there said he had no comment. Eyde's cousin, Sam Eyde of Lansing, said he had not heard whether his cousin was aboard the plane when it went down.
Early reports about a plane flying erratically sent several schools in the area scrambling to get students to safety.
Delaware Community Schools activated tornado drill procedures after the county sheriff's department said a plane was expected to crash between elementary schools. At Delta High School east of Muncie, a state trooper rushed in and told officials a plane could crash near the building within five minutes, said Principal Jim Koger. Officials raced to move the 880 students from lunch into interior rooms.
"In this case, it wasn't a drill," Koger said.
The plane, a single-engine propeller M20M Mooney, had about four hours of fuel left when officials noticed the problems, said NORAD spokesman Michael Kucharek.
The M20M Mooney is a high-performance plane that isn't pressurized but is capable of flying at altitudes of 20,000 feet or more. But whenever such planes go above 14,000 feet, pilots are required to wear supplemental oxygen, said Chris Dancy, a spokesman for the 415,000-member Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. It was not immediately known if the pilot had the supplemental oxygen.
In 1999, a charter jet crash killed pro golfer Payne Stewart and four others and flew halfway across the country on autopilot before crashing in a pasture in South Dakota. Everyone on board had apparently lost consciousness for lack of oxygen after a loss of cabin pressure, and the plane crashed after it ran out of fuel, investigators said.
Associated Press writers Deanna Martin and Charles Wilson in Indianapolis, Jim Prichard in Grand Rapids, Mich., Mike Conroy in Albany, Ind., Lolita C. Baldor in Washington, Ben Leubsdorf in Detroit and Michael Tarm and Mark Carlson in Chicago contributed to this report.