Jonathan Leber was known as "Ace" to his classmates in the Missions Aviation program at Maranatha Baptist Bible College in Wisconsin. From the time he got his pilot's license in 2002, he was up in the air with his heart set on missions work in South America.
Nearly 36 hours after his single-engine plane went down five miles offshore into Lake Michigan, Leber's family at home in Springfield was dealing with their son's disappearance late Monday night.
"We’re not optimistic at all right now. They haven’t found the body, the plane, anything. So we don’t know what to think," said John Leber, Jonathan's father, on Wednesday.
The Coast Guard abandoned the search for Leber, 20, on Tuesday, April 26. The last contact Leber had with anyone was a 911 distress call early Tuesday morning. John Leber confirmed wire reports that his son was traveling west across Lake Michigan late Monday night when he radioed the control tower at Milwaukee's Mitchell Airport to tell them he was running low on fuel and preparing to land there. He never made the landing, instead contacting local 911 dispatchers to tell them he had landed the plane, a rental from nearby Madison, in the water, and was sitting atop the plane, but sinking fast.
John Leber said his wife Kathy had spoken with their son around 10 p.m. Monday when Jonathan was flying over Lake Huron on his way back to Wisconsin. He had left Watertown, where Maranatha is located, over the weekend to travel to Hamilton, N.Y. to visit a friend whose wedding Leber planned on being in. Jonathan Leber left Hamilton to head back on Sunday morning, but had to land in Niagara Falls, N.Y. due to snow and ice. He spent Sunday night in New York and left Monday for Wisconsin.
"My wife told him 'I won’t keep you long because I know you have to keep your eyes on what you're doing,'" said John Leber. "She told him she loved him, and he said 'I love you too.' That was the last time we spoke with him."
The Coast Guard contacted the Lebers Tuesday morning to tell them their son's plane hadn't reached Watertown.
"I just prayed that the Lord was taking care of him and that he was safe," said John Leber. "I was trying to take it all in without breaking down."
JONATHAN LEBER graduated from Fairfax Baptist Temple Academy in 2002, and enrolled in Maranatha, where he was preparing for a career as a missions pilot and pastor.
"He wanted to go down to the Amazon and go into the villages and start new churches down there," said John Leber. The desire for missions had come from a trip Jonathan Leber took to New Zealand while in high school.
"At first, he wanted to go into the Air Force Academy. When he came back from the missions trip, he changed his goals and said 'I want to go to Maranatha and become a missions aviator,'" said John Leber. "Jonathan decided he wanted it, and he went out to do it."
Jonathan Leber played soccer and basketball at Fairfax Baptist Temple, and was involved in community swimming, for the Victor Swim Club and the Potomac Marlins. He also worked as a lifeguard and a water aerobics instructor at the Audrey Moore Rec Center in Springfield, and coached the Camelot Community Swim Team. Despite his strong swimming skills, his father said Jonathan would have been up against long odds to make the five-mile swim to shore in the 40-degree water with his clothes on.
"I’m a swim coach and water safety instructor, and I know that 46 degree water is going to zap you really quick," said John Leber.
Officials at Maranatha said they were tentatively putting together a memorial service for next week. Jonathan Leber was scheduled to take his final exams at college then, and return home to Virginia for the summer to work at Audrey Moore. He was planning on traveling to Africa during his senior year, before graduating and entering the mission field.
"He was doing what he loved to do. He loved flying, he loved missionary work," said John Leber. "He just wanted to serve the Lord."
The Lebers have one other child, a daughter Danielle who also attended Fairfax Baptist Temple, but is currently homeschooled. John Leber said the family is already preparing for the worst.
"It’s something we’re just going to deal with one day at a time. We know we’re going to miss him, but we know we’re going to meet up with him at some point," he said. "It will be a joyous occasion when that occurs."