By Gabriel Velasquez Neira

MICANOPY, Fla. – The pilot of a single-engine private plane died alone in a crash in a state park south of Gainesville during poor weather, the Federal Aviation Administration said early Wednesday. Area pilots described hearing the victim pleading for help over his radio minutes before the plane went down.

Rescuers found the wreckage after hours of searching, just before sunset Tuesday night. The young pilot had purchased the plane just two weeks earlier.

In his final moments, the pilot told an air traffic controller who was trying to assist him that he was lost in poor visibility and to tell his parents that he loved them. “I’m losing altitude,” he said. He asked the controller whether he should climb or descend or go left or right and indicated he could not get a clear reading from his instruments in the cockpit.

“I don’t think I can hold my altitude without descending,” the pilot said over the radio, according to a recording of radio traffic obtained by WUFT News. “How many miles am I from Gainesville?”

The FAA said Wednesday in a preliminary report about the crash that the pilot – who it did not identify – died and no one else was on board. It said the plane crashed due to “unknown circumstances.”

The small, propeller-driven plane, a Cherokee Piper 180, took off from Kissimmee Gateway Airport about 12:45 p.m. and flew about 100 miles north toward Gainesville. At about 1:25 p.m., the pilot flew very low – below 1,000 feet – before climbing again to about 3,000 feet and veering west about 15 minutes later.

At about 2 p.m., the plane took a series of sharp turns in rapid succession in heavily overcast weather, climbed as high as 6,800 feet and crashed about 300 mph, according to the plane’s radar track. Visibility was about one mile, according to audio tapes of Gainesville air traffic controllers around the time the plane went missing.

The plane’s maximum speed is listed by its manufacturer at 142 mph, suggesting the plane dove straight toward the ground in its final moments. The plane can carry up to four people, including the pilot.

The airfield manager at the Kissimmee airport, Ramon Senorans, confirmed that the plane took off at 12:45 p.m. under visual flight rules – meaning pilots are expected to remain clear of clouds and maintain a minimum of 1,000 feet above ground level. Weather around Gainesville on Tuesday – where rain and storms swept through the area for most of the day – would have precluded that.

Radio traffic between the pilot and Kissimmee’s tower showed that the pilot as he prepared for takeoff was warned that his destination airport was under instrument flight rules, meaning clouds and bad weather were too thick in the vicinity to see clearly. Then, seconds before takeoff, the controller encouraged the pilot to wait because it appeared that conditions were clearing for visual rules.

“It looks like it’s updating now to be not IFR, showing a few (clouds) at 800 (feet),” the controller told the pilot. “So, if you stand by a minute or two we’ll be VFR.”

The pilot took off about three minutes later.

Emergency crews rushed to a remote location in the Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, an expansive area of trees, grass and wetlands. Alachua County sheriff’s deputies and firefighters located the plane about 5:15 p.m., sheriff’s spokesman Art Forgey said. He said the investigation was being turned over to the FAA.

The plane was sold to Adrien James Valentine, 21, of Melrose, Florida, on Oct. 31, according to its previous owner, David R. Nicholls of Carlisle, Iowa. Valentine received his pilot’s license in May 2021.

Valentine’s father hung up the phone immediately when a reporter called him to ask about the crash.

Forgey, the sheriff’s spokesman, said area residents called 911 about 2:10 p.m. to report what they described as a plane losing altitude followed by the sound of an explosion. Air-traffic controllers reported losing contact with the plane around the same time.

Piper Cherokees are a popular model of private planes for flight training, air taxi and personal use, with low-mounted wings and fixed, tricycle landing gear.