CAPE MAY POINT — Standing with his wife, Dot, Wednesday morning on Cove Beach, Walt Meany saw a plane flying so low he could have touched it with the six-foot stick he was carrying.
“It seemed like it was out of control. Flying very low and close to the beach,” said Walt Meany, 82. “It was flying along the beach, and when it got to the curve (between the Cove and Cape May Point), it hit the water.”
A Mooney M20J crashed into the waters off Cape May Point, about 1,200 feet from the lighthouse, after taking off from Trenton-Robbinsville Airport in Mercer County about 8 a.m., according to a Federal Aviation Administration statement.
Dot Meany said she saw the plane fly straight up, a black trail of smoke behind it. She then heard a loud “boom,” and the plane crashed into the water.
A bystander called in a report after 11:30 a.m., said Coast Guard Petty Officer Andy Kendrick.
Heidi Pontoriero, general manager of Trenton-Robbinsville Airport, said she was familiar with the pilot but couldn’t provide a name until State Police provided her with more details.
“The gentleman ... has flown out of this airport many times before. He’s most certainly up to date on all his credentials, and the plane is most certainly up to date,” Pontoriero said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the family. It’s a tragedy.”
Rescue operations were underway shortly after the report was made.
Two State Police boats and two Coast Guard boats were stationed 250 yards off the beach with a specific search grid.
The State Police Marine Services Bureau located the plane using sonar. It was submerged in about 18 feet of water. Dive team troopers were conducting a recovery of the aircraft, according to State Police.
“It’s a very strong current out in the ocean right now,” said Bill Oat, chief of the Cape May Point Beach Patrol.
He said the Beach Patrol isn’t on duty until June 15, but he responded after his wife, who was hiking the nature trail, heard the plane crash.
According to Oat, a small amount of debris was found on the beach, and Lower Township police cordoned it off.
Jackie Morroni, who lives in the Villas section of Lower Township, was at the beach when she saw a plane flying low.
“We were down on the beach at Jefferson (Avenue) and saw it coming,” Morroni said. “My sister Jennifer was in the water about waist deep, and it wasn’t more than 20 feet away from her. It was flying very low, then went back in the air and headed toward Cape May Point.”
Morroni’s sister, Jennifer Horton, of Villas, said the aircraft wasn’t a banner plane.
“I don’t know if (the pilot) saw me, but it seemed like he saw the surfer because he turned toward the (open) water,” Horton said. “It was a white plane with maroon or red lettering or numbers on it. That’s how close it was.”
Ann Spiegel, a summer resident on Whilden Avenue, said she heard the commotion from her kitchen about noon and watched as search-and-rescue efforts continued.
“There was no splash other than when it hit the water. After that it was totally calm. I can understand why they couldn’t find it right away,” said Dot Meany.
Officials from State Police, Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office, Lower Township Police Department, Cape May Fire Department and the Town Bank Dive Team assisted at the scene.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating.