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How hypoxia likely brought down Laurence and Jane Glazer’s 'ghost plane'

Based on what’s known so far, it’s likely that Laurence and Jane Glazer’s aircraft flew along for hours, then ran out of fuel and crashed because of a loss of cabin pressure and hypoxia, affecting coordination and judgment and leading to incapacitation.

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Jamaican officials hold a press conference in Kingston, Jamaica Saturday. Rescue crews searching off Jamaica's coast on Saturday said they could no longer see debris spotted Friday evening by a military aircraft.

David McFadden/AP

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Exactly what brought down Laurence and Jane Glazer’s high-performance turboprop aircraft may never be known. Searchers so far have not found any sign of the aircraft, which apparently crashed in deep water near Jamaica after flying some 1,700 miles – well beyond its intended Florida destination and through Cuban airspace.

But the clues so far point to hypoxia or oxygen deprivation, likely caused by the loss of cabin pressure, which can quickly lead to disorientation and then incapacitation.

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The Glazers, a prominent couple from Rochester, N.Y., were both experienced pilots. They were flying under radar ground control on a familiar trip from Rochester to Naples, Fla.

On a recording made by LiveATC, a website that monitors and posts air traffic control audio recordings, Mr. Glazer says, "We need to descend down to about [18,000 feet]. We have an indication that's not correct in the plane." A controller replied, "Stand by."

After a pause, the controller told the pilot to fly at 25,000 feet. "We need to get lower," the pilot responded. "Working on that," the controller said. The pilot was cleared down to 20,000 feet, which he acknowledged. But he did not respond when the controller called again several minutes later.

As the aircraft approached Cuba, US Air Force fighter jets from South Carolina and Florida rendezvoused with the Glazers’ Socata TBM700 aircraft still flying along at 25,000 feet – apparently on autopilot.

The fighter pilots reported seeing the other pilot slumped over in the cockpit, although he appeared to be breathing at that point. The windows in the aircraft began to frost over, indicating loss of cabin pressure.

In general, pilots need cabin pressurization and supplemental oxygen to fly safely above 10,000 feet.

As part of their training, military pilots experience the initial stages of oxygen deprivation in a high-altitude chamber which simulates loss of pressurization. One-by-one, and with expert trainers present, they remove their oxygen masks and attempt simple manual tasks, demonstrating loss of coordination and judgment. This video gives a graphic illustration of the insidious effects of hypoxia, which initially include a sense of confidence in one’s situation and abilities that can eventually prove deadly.

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Among other things, investigators will look for why the Glazer’s aircraft began losing cabin pressure – if, indeed, that was the cause of their incapacitation. But that may be impossible without physical evidence found in the aircraft itself.

In retrospect, the recorded communications with flight controllers on the ground – which investigators will want to review as well – indicate that crucial moments may have been lost in the typical direction of multiple aircraft operating in finite airspace at assigned altitudes.

If Laurence Glazer had recognized the seriousness of the situation, he could have declared an emergency and quickly descended without waiting for official permission. But that’s a what-if assumption based on incomplete evidence.

Meanwhile, the Rochester community and officials around New York State are sadly noting the many contributions both Glazers made, particularly to revitalization of the city’s core.

In a July article headlined “Downtown’s patron saint,” rochestercitynewspaper.com describes “Larry Glazer's real estate empire.”

“Glazer's company, Buckingham Properties, either owns, co-owns, or manages nearly 13 million square feet of real estate space, including some of downtown Rochester's most iconic buildings: Midtown Tower, Xerox Square, and the Bausch and Lomb building,” according to this report. “Glazer, Buckingham's CEO and managing partner, began the company in the late 1960's when he partnered with a friend on a duplex. Now with 60 buildings in the Rochester area as well as projects in Florida, Buckingham is a rapidly growing, highly diversified real estate development company.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy and Sen. Charles Schumer were among the officials who publicly expressed sorrow for the couple's loss.

"The Glazers were innovative and generous people who were committed to revitalizing downtown Rochester and making the city they loved a better place for all,” Gov. Cuomo said in a statement.

What apparently happened with the Glazers’ aircraft is rare, but it does occur.

Last week, a pilot lost consciousness and his plane drifted into restricted airspace over Washington, eventually running out of fuel and crashing into the Atlantic.

In 1999, the pilots of a Learjet carrying professional golfer Payne Stewart from Orlando, Florida, to Texas became unresponsive. The aircraft eventually crashed, and an official investigation blamed the accident on depressurization.

There’s been speculation that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 flew off course and disappeared when the pilots became incapacitated due to hypoxia.