A small vintage World War II fighter plane taking part in a photo flight ahead of an air show crashed in to the Hudson River between Manhattan and New Jersey Friday evening, killing the pilot onboard, police and witnesses said.
The P-47 Thunderbolt, a single-seat propeller plane, was on a flight to shoot promotional material for the Bethapage Air Show in Jones Beach when it went down in the water about two miles south of the George Washington Bridge at about 7:30 p.m., according to officials.
Chopper 4, the first news helicopter on the scene, showed police, fire and Coast Guard boats and helicopters swarming the area as they searched for the pilot, later identified as William Gordon of Key West, Florida.
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Scuba divers recovered the 56-year-old’s body about three hours after the crash, according to NYPD Det. Michael Debonis.
The plane suffered some sort of mechanical issue and the pilot tried to ditch in the Hudson, said Gari Lewi, a spokesman for the American Airpower Museum at Republic Airport on Long Island, which owns the plane.
It's not clear what the source of the problem was.
Dozens of witnesses saw the plane now down, and at least one caught the moment the aircraft hit the water on video. That footage shows a large splash in the Hudson River, as a man off-camera can be heard saying, “did it just crash?”
Other people off the camera wonder aloud whether they had actually seen a plane crash before one says “We gotta call 911.”
Diners at Waterside Restaurant in North Bergen, New Jersey, tell NBC 4 New York they saw the small vintage plane appear to start landing, then suddenly plunge into the water nose first.
"We saw it splashing into the water and disappearing," said Sabine DeMeuter. "We were in shock."
They say they saw the pilot try to get out but he appeared to flail in the water and then sink with the plane.
"He tried to get out out, and then it pulled him right down inside," said Nick Ciccolella.
Other witnesses say they saw the smoke hit the water and at first thought it was an air show for Fleet Week, which draws thousands of people to the nearby Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum for events including live demonstrations.
New Jersey State Police erroneously said earlier the pilot had been rescued and was taken to the hospital with minor injuries, but NYPD Deputy Chief Rodney Harrison said in a news briefing a short time later that the pilot remained unaccounted for and that New Jersey State Police's report that he was rescued was "inaccurate."
New Jersey State Police later retracted its statement, saying there had been "conflicting reports from scene of plane crash" and that it could "no longer confirm swimmer in water was pilot."
The P47-Thunderbolt was the heaviest single-engine fighter plane used by Allied forces in World War II. The aircraft first went into service in 1942 with the 56th Fighter Group based on Long Island.
Lewi said the museum was going to honor the plane’s 75th anniversary of coming into service this weekend at the air show. The plane that crashed was supposed to fly in this weekend’s airshow.
The one that crashed in the river flew periodically, including to other air shows, Lewi said.
The site where the plane crashed Friday, near the Edgewater Marina, is a little less than 5 miles upriver of where U.S. Airways Flight 1549 made an emergency landing in the river in 2009 in what is now commonly referred to as “The Miracle on the Hudson”
Jonathan Dienst and Michael Gargiulo contributed to this report.