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Relative: 4 family members aboard plane that crashed in Osceola County

09 December 2009 by By Henry Pierson Curtis and Walter Pacheco, Orlando Sentinel

KISSIMMEE — Four members of a Spanish family died late Monday while flying back to Fort Lauderdale from a visit to Walt Disney World with their teen-age son at the controls, according to a relative waiting Wednesday in Miami for the victims' father and husband to arrive in the U.S.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash in southwest Osceola County but has not made any determination about what happened to cause it.

On the night of the crash, the pilot had been talking to air traffic control in Orlando, and there was no indication that the flight was anything other than normal. Then, communication ceased, NTSB investigator Shawn Etcher said.

"Airplanes don't just disappear unless something went wrong," he said.

While the victims have not been officially identified, family relative Manuel Vallina of Miami, told the Orlando Sentinel that the 19-year-old pilot, Manuel, an 18-year-old brother, a 16-year-old sister and their mother, Carmen Blanco Herrera, 45, were aboard the four-seat Cessna 172 that disappeared late Monday. All four came from Valladolid, northwest of Madrid.

The victims' identities have not been confirmed.

Reports from Valladolid newspaper El Día de Valladolid show that Blanco Herrera was president of the Alzheimer's Association of Laguna de Duero in Valladolid. Her mother had died from the disease in 2008.

Her husband is the president of one of Valladolid's major credit unions, the newspaper reported.

"They came here to spend two weeks with Manuel and they were supposed to go home the day after tomorrow," Vallina said. "Their father is arriving at 4 p.m. today. . . . We've already made arrangements with the Spanish embassy."

Verification of their identities awaits confirmation by the Orange-Osceola Medical Examiner's Office.

Recovery of remains, plane continues

Remains of the victims are still being recovered from Lake Russell, near Poinciana, according to the Osceola County Sheriff's Office.

Dive teams from the Orange and Polk county sheriff's offices are assisting the recovery along with an Osceola marine unit and eight Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers.

"Right now, our priority is on collecting the human remains," sheriff's spokeswoman Twis Lizasuain said Wednesday before noon. "There is no plan at this point to lift the aircraft until we have recovered the search for human remains."

The single-engine airplane, owned by a Fort Lauderdale flight school, disappeared from radar about 10:23 p.m. Monday shortly after taking off from Kissimmee Gateway Airport bound for Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport. It crashed in the center of the lake about 20 miles south of Kissimmee where the heavily damaged wreckage was found Tuesday in about six feet of water.

Etching said it appears the right wingtip was the first to strike the water.

He said the NTSB intends to retrieve as much of the plane as it can and then reconstruct it to help isolate what caused the accident.

The board will release a preliminary report of the accident in 10 business days, but it will not include any analysis of the crash. The investigation will take six months to a year to complete, Etching said.

Focus may be 19-year-old pilot

The 19-year-old pilot, who obtained his license in recent months, rented the four-seat Cessna 172 plane from Airborne Systems Inc. Monday morning before it departed from Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, said Vinny Billisi, Airborne Systems' vice president and director of operations.

Investigators want to confirm the pilot's identity to help them understand the crash. The pilot could be a "low-level pilot," a new pilot with less than 120 hours of flying experience.

The pilot did not file a flight plan but was not required to do so, Etching said.

Friends of the pilot told Billisi the teenager flew to Kissimmee to spend the day at Walt Disney World with his mother, brother and sister.

However, Billisi said he didn't know whether the pilot's family members were passengers aboard the plane or whether he was meeting them in Kissimmee. Citing the family's request for privacy, he declined to release the names of the pilot and his family.

The pilot's father is on his way to Florida from Spain, Billisi said.

Airborne Systems "is heartbroken about the loss of one of our renter pilots and his family members who we assume were on board the plane that disappeared Monday night in route from Kissimmee to Fort Lauderdale," said a company statement provided by Billisi. "We held a vigil and prayed that he had been delayed and/or encountered weather not favorable for flying and that he would return yesterday. That was not to be."

Airborne Systems Inc. is a business that rents planes and doubles as a flight school at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, Billisi said. The pilot had been a student at the flight school until he obtained his pilot's license within the past six months, Billisi said.

Manuel came to Florida in June to study at the Fort Lauderdale flight school, his relative said. Vallina also told the Sentinel the family flew together for the day at Disney.

During months of flight school training, he lived in a Pompano Beach apartment, Billisi said.

As many pilots from Europe often do, the man moved to the United States, where it's cheaper to attend school and obtain his license, Billisi said. He was on his way of fulfilling his dream: To become a pilot for a major airline in Europe, Billisi said.

Because the man had obtained his pilot's license, an instructor didn't accompany him on his trip to Central Florida, Billisi said.

Federal Aviation Administration regulations indicate obtaining a pilot's license requires at least 40 hours of training, 20 hours of flying with an instructor and 10 solo hours, including three hours of night flying.

An investigator from the National Transportation Safety Board reached the lake Wednesday after traveling from the NTSB's Eastern Regional in Virginia.

The lake about 15 to 20 miles southwest of Kissimmee and is bordered by the 12,000-acre Nature Conservancy Disney Wilderness Preserve, one of the last, large undeveloped tracts of public land in Central Florida. The first debris was found Tuesday morning floating on the western shore of the circular lake that is more than a half-mile in diameter.

The Cessna 172 is one of more than 10 aircraft used at Airborne Systems Inc., a flight-training school and aircraft rental company at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, according to the company Web site.



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