SUBSCRIBE NOW
99¢ for the first month
SUBSCRIBE NOW
99¢ for the first month

Florida veterinarian whose plane vanished in storm reported, ’It’s squirrelly up here’

Staff Writer
Walton Sun
Walton Sun

Lake Worth-area veterinarian Ken Simmons told air-traffic controllers, "It's just really squirrelly up here. It's weird," moments before his plane vanished in a storm between Florida and the Bahamas, a new investigative report says.

Simmons, 62, his wife Alice, 59, and golden retrievers Bailey and Lily disappeared the afternoon of Feb. 1, 2019, while heading to Marsh Harbour in the Bahamas. They had planned to spend the weekend at their four-bedroom home in nearby Guana Cay.

The National Transportation Safety Board "factual report," posted over the weekend, is not the final one and gives no probable cause for the crash.

But it does include references to "spatial disorientation," a sometimes-fatal bane of pilots, in which they lose all visual contact with the ground or ocean and even the horizon, as well as their grip on their speed, location, and direction, and even if they're facing up.

It also said motion sensing by a pilot's inner ear can make him or her believe the plane's altitude has changed when it hasn't.

>>EXCLUSIVE: Veterinarian Ken Simmons and a friendship never to be forgotten

According to the report, and a preliminary one issued about three weeks after the crash, Simmons' six-seat, single-engine Piper Saratoga went down 15 minutes after leaving the Lantana airport.

The report said Simmons got a weather briefing before he left. He said if the storm was moving north, he'd fly under it. Instead, he was told it was "just sitting there." Simmons told the flight service he saw "one little red blob out there."

For the route, weather officials at the time were reporting moderate rain showers and isolated thunderstorms with heavy rain.

But a friend said Simmons likely wanted to get out before flight restrictions went into place that afternoon, effectively shutting down the Lantana airport, because of a scheduled weekend stay by President Donald J. Trump at the Mar-a-Lago "Winter White House."

>>Photos: Veterinarian’s plane crashes in Atlantic

The new NTSB report said air-traffic controllers — the report doesn't say where they were based — directed Simmons to fly above and around the storms, which were about 10 miles ahead.

"The pilot read back the instructions and said, 'I don't know what happened. My autopilot it just kicked off,' " the report said.

It said the controller told Simmons to climb to 6,000 feet, then said he didn't seem to be pointed in the right direction. Simmons said he was "really fighting" to maintain heading.

One minute later, the controller told Simmons had inexplicably made a right turn and was heading south, and asked if he needed help. The report said Simmons replied, "It's just really squirrelly up here it's weird."

A few minutes after that, Simmons reported he'd encountered "some really weird winds." The controller said Simmons now was going north, right into some heavy rain, and told him to turn south.

Simmons again said he was having autopilot trouble and was going to switch to flying the plane manually. The controller then said the plane appeared to be heading east again. Then, a minute later, he told Simmons he now was flying northwest.

Simmons said he was “fine" but his instruments were "acting really goofy" and he'd turn east. The controller told him to stay between 6,000 and 7,000 feet. Simmons did not respond.

"Shortly thereafter, the airplane entered a sharp right turn from a northerly heading and began to descend," the report said.

>>MORE ONLINE: Coast Guard suspends search for veterinarian’s plane

“The radar track showed the airplane in an increasingly steep right turn as it rapidly descended and was lost from radar about 1315” — 1:15 p.m. — “in an area that depicted heavy precipitation."

For a day and a half, a U.S. Coast Guard searched over 1,115 square miles, an area a little larger than Broward County, before giving up.

Shortly after the plane disappeared, Guy Maira, a friend and fellow pilot, told The Palm Beach Post that Simmons might have tried to fly through a gap between two cells of stormy weather and, disoriented, instead flew right into one.

Even if there appears to be a clear stretch of sky between two lines of bad weather on radar, "the turbulence between thunderstorms can rip a plane apart," Maira said.

The Simmonses were married about 37 years and had two adult sons.

Simmons, owner of Simmons Animal Hospital on Lake Worth Road in Greenacres, had started his clinic in 1982 and eventually had more than 50 staffers and two boarding kennels as well as a water park for dogs. He later sold the animal hospital to the VCA veterinary center chain.

Over four decades, Simmons would undertake numerous volunteer missions to treat pets in the Bahamas. The couple also had a property on Andros Island they'd hoped to turn into a bed-and-breakfast. A friend said he'd fly over about twice a week.

ek@pbpost.com

@eliotkpbp