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Update: Coast Guard Suspends Search for Missing Aircraft; Passengers ID'd

May 12, 2006 – The U.S. Coast Guard has suspended its search Friday for a twin-engine plane and its two passengers – identified by Coast Guard officials as pilot Victor Tuitt, 62, and passenger Johnny Gumbs, 55 – missing since Wednesday evening shortly after takeoff from the Cyril E. King Airport en route to St. Croix. Both men are from St. Croix.
U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Ricardo Castrodad said that the search was suspended at 6:45 p.m. Friday after a full day that turned up no sign of debris or a possible crash site.
"The search has been suspended pending further development," Castrodad said Friday night.
The search was launched Wednesday night shortly after air traffic controllers in San Juan reported losing contact with the Piper Aztec plane.
Castrodad said that the search area is approximately 2,500 nautical square miles and extends from St. Croix to St. Thomas to Culebra and Vieques.
Castrodad said that the agency has logged 36 search hours to date.
Castrodad said that when the search resumed Friday morning an HC-130 Hercules aircraft from Clearwater, Fla., and a U.S. Air Force Civil Air Patrol Cessna-182 based in Puerto Rico, were brought in for assistance.
The two aircraft joined the search that began with a C-26 fixed wing aircraft, an HU-25 Falcon jet from Air Station Miami, the Coast Guard Cutter, Sapelo, and a 25-foot response boat dispatched from the St. Thomas Marine Safety Detachment.
Castrodad has said that the plane took off from St. Thomas shortly after 7 p.m. Wednesday but about 15 minutes into the flight, the pilot contacted Air Traffic Control Tower in St. Croix to report being disoriented.
The plane was about 18 nautical miles southeast of the St. Thomas airport when contact was lost, Castrodad said. The Coast Guard was notified at 7:42 p.m. and immediately launched an air and sea search.
"The search is still ongoing," Castrodad said at 5 p.m. Friday. "We will ascertain at sunset whether the search will be suspended indefinitely."
Castrodad said that the Sapelo, a 100-foot cutter based in Puerto Rico, continued to search the waters Friday "hoping to find signs of debris, a possible crash sight, survivors or bodies."
No trace of the missing planed was found, however.
The incident marks the second time in 27 months that an aircraft has gone missing without a trace.
In February 2004, a single-engine plane piloted by Dr. Sheldon Prudoff, a St. Croix oral surgeon and dentist, fell off the radar while en route from Puerto Rico to St. Croix.
The U.S. Coast Guard searched for Prudoff's plane for four days before suspending the search on the fifth day in February 2004.
Prudoff was piloting the 1975 model 112 Alpine Commander when it fell off the radar around 9 p.m. on February 15. Coast Guard officials said then that Prudoff was the only person aboard the aircraft when traffic controllers lost contact.

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