Unconscious pilot crashes into Gulf of Mexico

Thu Apr 19, 2012 1:41pm EDT

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(Reuters) - The unconscious pilot of a small private plane flew in circles over the Gulf of Mexico for hours on Thursday, shadowed by two U.S. military jets, before running out of fuel and crashing into the water, authorities said.

The U.S. Coast Guard dispatched a boat to the crash site, about 120 miles west of Tampa, Florida. The fate of the Cessna's pilot was not yet known, a U.S. Coast Guard spokesman, Petty Officer Steve Lehmann, said.

Two F-15 fighter jets sent up to intercept the Cessna said the pilot was "unresponsive," and the jets stayed with the plane, said Stacey Knott, a spokeswoman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

The plane took off from Slidell, Louisiana, en route to Sarasota, Florida, and ended up circling at 20,000 feet, over Gulf waters, a Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman said.

In a previous incident involving a "ghost plane," professional golfer Payne Stewart and five others died aboard a chartered private jet on October 25, 1999. That plane lost cabin pressure, incapacitating those on board, and flew for four hours before crashing into a field near Aberdeen, South Dakota.

(Reporting By Andrew Stern; Editing by Vicki Allen and David Brunnstrom)

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