On July 3, 1998, at 1845 eastern daylight time (EDT), an Aero Vodochody L-39C, N7868M, operated by a commercial pilot, was reported missing over Lake Michigan, in the vicinity west-northwest of Traverse City, Michigan. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed at the time of the accident. The flight was being conducted under 14 CFR Part 91. There was no flight plan on file. The pilot and pilot-rated passenger on board have not been found. The local flight departed from the Cherry Capital Airport, Traverse City, Michigan, at 1831 EDT.
The airplane had been flown from Quincy, Illinois, to Traverse City, Michigan, earlier that day, for the purpose of performing exhibition flights in the National Cherry Festival Air show, scheduled for July 4-5, 1998. A student at Northwestern Michigan College said that the airplane arrived at Cherry Capital Airport at approximately 1710 EDT. A witness at Harbor Air, a fixed base operator on the Cherry Capital Airport, said that following its arrival, the airplane was fueled with 183 gallons of Phillips 66 jet fuel.
The Director of the Aviation Division at Northwestern Michigan College said that the college had worked with the Cherry Festival coordinators for several years, housing visiting airplanes used in the air show. Because of this, arrangements were made so that he and the passenger of the missing airplane (an instructor pilot, also employed by the college), could ride in the L-39C, and a Migoyan-Gurevich (MiG)-21, also owned and operated by Air USA, Incorporated. The witness said that he went up in the MiG- 21, taking off at around 1900 EDT. The L-39C took off before him. When he got back at approximately 2000 EDT, the witness discovered that the L-39C was overdue to arrive back at the airport.
The Manager at the Cherry Capital Airport Air Traffic Control Tower (ATCT) said that the airplane took off at 1831 EDT. At 1844 EDT, the tower controller asked the pilot of the airplane for a position report. The pilot answered that he was 27 miles northeast of the airport tracking the 246 degree radial. The pilot told the tower that he would call them again when he got within five miles [of the airport]. Shortly following the pilot’s radio transmission, the airplane was tracked by ATCT radar making a turn and tracking due west at 300 miles per hour. The airplane was tracked to a position off of the Traverse City (TVC) VOR of 344 degrees at 31.1 miles. Radar contact was lost as the airplane approached South Fox Island (TVC VOR 177 degree radial at 9.6 miles). One minute and 20 seconds after radar contact was lost, a fast moving primary target was tracked to a position 9 miles north of South Fox Island, where the target was lost.
At 2057 EDT, the U. S. Coast Guard initiated search and rescue operations for the missing airplane. U. S Coast Guard, U. S. Navy, and Canadian Forces resources (air and sea) were used in the search. An area of approximately 2,300 square nautical miles of Lake Michigan extending from Frankfort, Michigan, north to the southern shoreline of the Upper Peninsula, near Port Island, Michigan, was searched. The search included North and South Manitou Islands, Fox Island, Beaver Island, High Island, and Gull Island. On July 4, 1998, at 2235 EDT, search operations were suspended.
The L-39C airplane was manufactured by the Aero Vodochody Company, in what is now the Czech Republic, in 1984. It was used as a primary, tandem-seat, military-jet training aircraft for the former Warsaw pact nations. The airplane was registered to Air USA, Incorporated, on October 4, 1995, operating under the registration number N7868M. The airplane was issued a special airworthiness certificate, experimental category, on April 4, 1998. The airplane was being used for exhibition purposes, and was scheduled to appear at air shows through September of 1998.