- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 27, 2005

A 20-year-old from Springfield who had hoped to swim in the Olympics was flying a single-engine plane to his college in Wisconsin late Monday night when he ran out of fuel over Lake Michigan.

Jonathan Leber, a blond competitive swimmer nicknamed “Ace” who sported a buzz cut, told a 911 dispatcher while sitting on the roof of his sinking plane that he had no flotation device and would try to swim the five miles to land.

As of last night, Mr. Leber had not been found, and the Coast Guard had called off its search for him.

In his call to the dispatcher, Mr. Leber remained calm.

“I need help really fast,” he told the dispatcher at 11:45 p.m. “I’m in Lake Michigan. My plane ran out of fuel. … I’m in the water.”

He calmly answered questions for about a minute. When the dispatcher asked for his cell-phone number, Mr. Leber’s plane had slipped underwater.

“I’m in the water,” Mr. Leber said. “Help.”

“Jonathan?” the dispatcher said.

“Yeah,” Mr. Leber replied.

The only noise then was that of water, then a slight groaning noise, and then more water. The call ended with a dial tone.

Coast Guard Lt. Rolando Hernandez said Mr. Leber could not have survived more than three hours in the water. On Monday night, the air temperature was 32 degrees and the water was 44 degrees. The wind was blowing 1- to 3-foot waves away from land.

“Usually people in good shape don’t have that much body fat, which can help insulate you some,” Lt. Hernandez said. “My understanding is that he was in very good shape. The temperature in the water is what can really take somebody down.”

The Coast Guard called off a search for Mr. Leber on Tuesday afternoon after scouring 1,300 square feet with one plane, two helicopters and six boats over 16 hours, Lt. Hernandez said.

On Monday night, Mr. Leber was on his way back to school after a weekend visit with friends in New York. He obtained his pilot’s license in June 2003. He flew often for pleasure and to obtain credit toward his major of biblical studies and aviation at Maranatha Baptist Bible College in Watertown, Wis.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the crash.

Meanwhile, Mr. Leber’s family and friends had little energy to search for answers yesterday. They could only grieve the loss of a young man who they say was always smiling and who wanted to become a Christian missionary in South America someday.

“He does everything with gusto. He has that spark of life in him,” said his father, John Leber, yesterday.

“We deal with it moment by moment, hour by hour, day by day. The Lord gives us grace to deal with situations like this, and we rely heavily on his guidance through the Bible to give us the strength to go on,” he said.

His friends echoed the elder Mr. Leber’s sentiments.

“It’s just a big shock. It makes you numb. … When it happens, it’s almost like you can’t believe it’s true,” said Matt Ledgerwood, Jonathan’s close friend at Maranatha.

In addition to his parents, Jonathan Leber leaves behind a 17-year-old sister, Danielle. The Lebers ask that all donations in Jonathan’s memory be made to Maranatha Baptist Bible College or to the Leber family’s church, Fairfax Baptist Temple in Fairfax Station.

John Leber, a Baptist preacher, said his son “touched a lot of people’s lives. We’ve gotten calls from as far as New Zealand and around the United States from people who know him and love him.”

Jonathan Leber swam competitively and also coached youth and high school swim teams in Watertown and in Springfield in the summer.

“He wanted to give his life to flying missionaries and being a missionary. That was what he felt God had called him to do and what he enjoyed doing,” said Doug Richards, dean of students at Maranatha.

Mr. Ledgerwood said Jonathan Leber wanted to work for the Secret Service for a few years before becoming a missionary.

“He was fun-loving, very friendly; he knew a ton of people. I’ve never met anyone with so many contacts,” said Mr. Ledgerwood, whom Mr. Leber invited to come along on that flight. “He was a very unique individual, and he was not afraid to be so.”

Mr. Ledgerwood last saw Jonathan on Friday afternoon in an Old Testament biblical theology class.

“He stayed in class, and as soon as it was done, he just jumped up to go to his car,” Mr. Ledgerwood said. “I knew he was going to pick up his plane.”

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