NEW ORLEANS A small plane that left Slidell's airport Thursday morning lost contact with flight controllers and crashed in the Gulf of Mexico around noon.

Friends of the pilot identified him as Dr. Peter Hertzak, a Slidell obstetrician/gynecologist and plastic surgeon.

Those friends said Hertzak is a great aviator and well-respected doctor.

Dr. Hertzak took off from the Slidell airport en route to Sarasota, Florida shortly before 7 a.m.

About one hour into his flight, air traffic controllers lost contact with Hertzak and the plane started orbiting in the Gulf of Mexico, off the Florida panhandle.

Fighter jets were dispatched to check it out and they found Hertzak unresponsive and the windshield of his Cessna 421, twin-engine aircraft iced over.

The plane crashed into the water around 11:15 CST.

'I've lost a dear friend,' said Bill Huete, a Slidell pilot. '(He was) just a great guy, super doctor and just a regular guy who would do anything for anybody.'

'I've known him as a fellow airport tenant for the past 10 years,' added Patrick Quigley, another pilot. 'He had a great reputation. He was a super pilot and he had a great reputation as a doctor.'

According to the Coast Guard, the plane had a soft landing, then sunk into the Gulf.

Crews flying over the site saw no sign of the pilot.

Hertzak has a practice on Robert Blvd., not far from Slidell Hospital. His fellow pilots say Hertzak was a good aviator and was in great condition.

'His aircraft, I looked it over many times and it's just meticulously maintained and he spared no expense to keep everything in tip-top shape,' said Quigley.

'He was an excellent pilot, strictly by the numbers,' said Huete. '(He) took care of his airplane, maintained it to the highest standards. It was probably one of the finest 421s flying around.'

Hertzak's fellow pilots say they aren't sure what happened over the Gulf, but they say that more likely than not it was mechanical and not pilot error.

They say a pressurization failure of some sort would have rendered him unconscious at the altitude at which he was flying.

There has been no sign of Hertzak in the crash area.

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