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Small plane crashes in eastern Indiana field

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A small, single-engine plane crashed into an open field in eastern Indiana on Wednesday after the pilot became unresponsive and the plane started to speed up and slow down at dangerous speeds, officials said.

The pilot may have had a health problem or was suffering from a lack of oxygen, officials said.

Military officials do not believe the crash was terrorism-related, said Michael Kucharek, a spokesman for U.S. North American Aerospace Defense Command. Instead, he said the pilot may have blacked out due to a condition known as hypoxia.

The defense command said the flight left Grand Rapids, Mich., and lost communication with ground air traffic controllers. The online site flightaware.com listed the flight’s destination as Muncie, Ind.

The plane crashed about 12:40 p.m. EDT Wednesday into a field in a rural area of eastern Indiana, about 60 miles northeast of Indianapolis and 185 miles south of Grand Rapids, NORAD said.

John Erickson, a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Homeland Security, said F-16s from the Indiana National Guard had intercepted the plane but that the aircraft crashed on its own. Officials would not comment on the condition of the pilot.

Controllers in Indianapolis reported the plane had been circling with the pilot slumped over in his seat at around 25,000 feet, said Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. It wasn’t immediately clear if the pilot intentionally flew to that altitude, then passed out, or if the plane ascended after the pilot lost consciousness, he said.

The plane was a single-engine propeller M20M Mooney, and it had about four hours of fuel left when officials noticed the problems, said Kucharek.

In 1999, a charter jet crash killed pro golfer Payne Stewart and four others and flew halfway across the country on autopilot before crashing in a pasture in South Dakota. Everyone on board had apparently lost consciousness for lack of oxygen after a loss of cabin pressure, and the plane crashed after it ran out of fuel, investigators said.

Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor in Washington and Michael Tarm and Mark Carlson in Chicago contributed to this report.

© 2009 Associated Press. Displayed by permission. All rights reserved.

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