Steven Stone Schumacher

Steven Schumacher, a trauma surgeon with the Saint Francis Healthcare System in Cape Giradeau, Missouri, was piloting a Piper Aztec twin-engine plane from Missouri to Gonzales, Louisiana on Wednesday when it likely crashed in the Gulf of Mexico. 

The U.S. Coast Guard ended a search for his aircraft on Sunday. 

Dr. Steven Stone Schumacher is presumed to have gone down with his plane earlier this month somewhere between the tip of the Yucatán Peninsula and an undersea area of the Gulf of Mexico known as the Sigsbee Deep, the U.S. Coast Guard said.

The Coast Guard ended its surface search Sunday with help of the Mexican navy, and it's not clear how much more the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board will be able to learn about the crash without recovery of the plane, which is likely in water about 2 miles deep, authorities said.

An FAA spokesman said earlier this week that the agency had just received a formal report on Schumacher's missing plane. Keith Holloway, NTSB spokesman, said it's hard for his agency to do an investigation without an aircraft. He said NTSB does subsea searches but couldn't say Thursday what the agency may do.

Schumacher, 63, who grew up in New Orleans but lived in St. Petersburg, Florida, worked as a contract trauma surgeon in Missouri and regularly made the trip in his plane, family said.

He left an airport in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, at 6:36 p.m. Oct. 16, according to the flight tracking site FlightAware. He was scheduled to land his twin-engine Piper Aztec at Louisiana Regional Airport in Gonzales at 8:30 p.m., the Coast Guard said, but ended up 50 feet over the Gulf five hours after takeoff, 440 miles south of the Louisiana coast. 

Though he could never be reached by air traffic control, several experts said it was too soon to speculate about what may have happened, noting aviation crash investigations can often take unexpected turns.

Schumacher's brother Robert Schumacher, 59, who still lives in the New Orleans area, said he and his family are operating under the assumption that something happened after takeoff to their brother, who was in good health, and that the plane flew until it ran out of gas.

He said family members are grappling with how to bring closure, emotionally and legally, but the lingering uncertainty about what happened and that the Coast Guard search was hampered by a tropical disturbance in the Gulf are still hard to bear.

"I've experienced some loss. I've been through some traumatic things. This one, this one, at the moment, is the top of the list," said Robert Schumacher, who said his brother never married and had no children but was the person who kept the wider family together.   

One aviation expert said it is "very rare" for federal agencies to spend the tens of thousands dollars per day to a scan of the bottom of ocean for a general aviation aircraft with only a handful of victims. The effort that can easily run into the millions of dollars over months to years.

Matthew Robinson, a former aircraft accident investigator for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, said the searches involve ships using side-scanning sonar plying the water in a grid pattern. He said the decision to conduct that kind of search gets down to a cost-benefit analysis. 

"It's a tough one," said Robinson, who now works for Robson Forensic. 

Robinson cited the search for John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and his sister-in-law, Lauren G. Bessette, as one general aviation example. Their plane went down in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Martha's Vineyard in 1999.

Sonar found the wreckage in 116 feet of water. Navy divers were able to confirm the crash and aid in the recovery, according to news accounts at the time.

Robinson said finding a crash in water 2 miles deep would require not only side-scanning sonar but remotely operated vehicles to reach depths well beyond the capacity of divers.

He added that searches with side scanning sonar are usually assisted with underwater beacons inside the crashed planes. He said he wasn't that sure Schumacher's Piper Aztec would have that kind of beacon.

Underwater searches aren't something the Coast Guard does or has the capacity to do, Coast Buard Petty Officer 3rd Class John Michelli said Thursday. 

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.

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