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Mon, Jan 12, 2009

PA46 Pilot Missing Following Florida Downing

Officials Say Pilot May Have Bailed Out

ANN REALTIME UPDATE 01.12.09 2300 EST (More Background Added): It appears increasingly likely the pilot of a Piper Meridian that crashed Sunday night didn't perish in the accident... but rather that Marcus Schrenker apparently pulled a D.B. Cooper, and parachuted out of the plane somewhere over Alabama.

WALA-10 reports a police officer in Childersburg, AL came across the 38-year-old man Sunday night, and drove him to a local hotel. The officer was unaware of the true circumstances of Schrenker's arrival in the town, as the pilot told him he had been in a canoeing accident, WALA adds.

Some Internet snooping has also revealed a possible motive for the pilot's vanishing act. Schrenker is president of Indianapolis-based Heritage Wealth Management... which, along with sister companies Heritage Insurance Services and Icon Wealth Management, are under investigation for possible securities fraud, to the tune of some $1.4 million.

The Birmingham News reports Schrenker was recently ordered by a federal court to pay a $533,564 judgement to OM Financial Life Insurance Company, after he failed to appear in court on the matter. The Associated Press adds his wife, Michelle, filed for divorce on December 30... one day before federal officers raided the Schrenkers' home in the affluent Geist Reservoir area of Indianapolis.

As noted below, Schrenker issued a distress call about 7:20 pm CST Sunday, telling ATC one of the Meridian's windscreens had blown out following an encounter with severe turbulence, and that he was injured. Controllers had no further contact with the pilot.

"A careful review of the radar data, coupled with other information we received from other sources, indicate that it appears that he may have exited the aircraft at some point in the flight," FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said.

The plane crashed four hours later in the Florida panhandle, apparently after running out of fuel. The Meridian impacted a residential bayou area near the Gulf shoreline, and came to rest inverted within 100 yards of a home. No one on the ground was injured.

Schrenker reportedly paid cash for his hotel room in Childersburg, and checked in under a pseudonym. Police believe he later fled into a wooded area near the hotel.

The man remained missing as of Monday night.

Original Report

1245 EST: Search crews are combing the Florida panhandle for signs of the pilot of a Piper PA-46-500TP Meridian turboprop that crashed near East Milton Sunday night... but there's evidence the pilot did not go down with his plane, for reasons that are as yet unclear.

CNN reports the lone pilot radioed controllers while flying approximately 35 miles southwest of Birmingham, AL that the windscreen of the pressurized aircraft had 'imploded' and that he was bleeding heavily.

Controllers attempted to make further contact with the pilot and give him vectors to land at St. Clair County Airport (PLR) near Pell City, AL, but he "did not prove responsive," said Sgt. Scott Haines of the Santa Rosa County Sheriff's Office in a interview Sunday night.

The aircraft later crashed in a wooded, marshy area, about 50 miles west of Destin; first responders reportedly found the aircraft lying inverted, with one of the plane's windscreens missing, and the cabin door open.

In an odd twist, early Monday reports surfaced the pilot -- identified by the New York Daily News as Marcus Schrenker, President of Heritage Wealth Management -- may have bailed out of the aircraft via parachute. CNN reported witnesses near Harpersville, AL saw the pilot check into a hotel.

"All indications now are that he made some type of false emergency call [and] abandoned the plane by parachute," Haines added in a follow-up interview Monday morning.

At the moment, however, there's no sign of the man's whereabouts.

FAA records show the accident aircraft, N428DC, departed Anderson Municipal Airport (AID) in Indiana Sunday evening, heading for Destin, FL. Online flight tracking data indicates the pilot checked in with Indianapolis Center shortly after takeoff at 6:40 pm CST, and was eventually cleared to Destin at FL240.

According to FlightAware.com, the aircraft descended from 24,000 feet to 3,900 feet over the course of 10 minutes, beginning at 7:24 pm EST. Controllers apparently also attempted to route the pilot to land at Northeast Alabama Regional Airport (GAD), but the airplane overflew that field.

Just after 8:00 pm CST, the aircraft (type shown below) passed over Sylacauga Municipal Airport (SCD) at 3,800 feet MSL reported. For the next 58 minutes, the aircraft's altitude varied between 3,800 and 4,000 feet on a constant SSW heading, at an airspeed of 125-130 knots.

The Meridian's speed later deteriorated to under 100 knots, and at 9:12 pm the aircraft descended to just 200 feet... where it remained until the last radar echo was reported two hours later, at a recorded speed of 82 knots.

The constant heading of the plane's ground track indicates the plane was placed on autopilot, and it may have crashed after running out of fuel. Miltary aircraft dispatched to shadow the Meridian after Schrenker made his initial distress call reported the plane's cabin door was open, and the cockpit appeared dark.

Steve Darlington, manager of the Anderson Airport, said he does not believe the pilot had a parachute when he departed from AID. He described Schrenker as an "accomplished" pilot, adding he owns "a couple of airplanes."

ANN will have updates on this unusual story as they become available.

IDENTIFICATION
  Regis#: 428DC        Make/Model: PA46      Description: PA-46 Malibu, Malibu Mirage
  Date: 01/12/2009     Time: 1420

  Event Type: Accident   Highest Injury: None     Mid Air: N    Missing: N
  Damage: Destroyed

LOCATION
  City: MILTON   State: FL   Country: US

DESCRIPTION
  AIRCRAFT REPORTED INFLIGHT EMERGENCY AND CRASHED INTO A SWAMPY AREA,
  WREAKAGE LOCATED 1 MILE FROM MILTON, FL, REPORTS INDICATE THAT THE ONE
  PERSON ON BOARD EXITED THE AIRCRAFT VIA PARACHUTE AND IS MISSING

INJURY DATA      Total Fatal:   0
                 # Crew:   1     Fat:   0     Ser:   0     Min:   0     Unk:   1
                 # Pass:   0     Fat:   0     Ser:   0     Min:   0     Unk:   
                 # Grnd:         Fat:   0     Ser:   0     Min:   0     Unk:   

WEATHER: 0300Z 36011G18KT 10SM 120BKN 07/03

OTHER DATA
  Activity: Pleasure      Phase: Unknown      Operation: OTHER

FMI: www.faa.gov

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