DADE CITY — A nationally known aerobatic pilot and his high-school-aged passenger died while practicing maneuvers over east Pasco County orange groves Monday.
The pilot, Paul Lopez, 40, performed in air shows around the country. He was trying to turn the gigs into full-time work after being laid off from his banking job last year.
His passenger, a local high school student, was an aspiring pilot, according to Lopez's family. They did not know the young man's name or age.
Lopez and the teenager perished in Lopez's MX2, a sleek, single-engine aircraft designed for aerobatics.
The plane apparently entered a spin and did not recover before slamming into the ground and catching fire.
The Pasco County Sheriff's Office is investigating the accident, along with the National Transportation Safety Board. Neither agency has released any details surrounding the crash.
Nadine Sheehan, 65, of Zephyrhills was leaving a nearby strawberry field when she saw the plane "doing loop de loops and turning sideways" over Enterprise Road.
She got out of her truck to watch. After about 10 minutes of stunts, the plane leveled off and an eerie silence filled the orange groves.
"It went straight down," she said. "I heard the boom and saw the flames."
Lopez fell in love with flying as a child watching air shows with his father near their home in Simi Valley, Calif.
As a teenager, Lopez could not afford lessons, but he was determined to learn how to fly.
"I would bang on all the flight school doors at Van Nuys airport (in Los Angeles) looking for one of them to trade me flying lessons for washing their planes," he wrote on his Web site, paullopezairshows.com.
Lopez earned his commercial and single-engine flying licenses and eventually got a job in the television industry.
By the late 1990s, Lopez had made enough money to pursue his dream of aerobatics. Just watching the loops, spins and rolls gave him an adrenaline rush.
"I thought only beautiful women could do that to me," Lopez wrote on his site. "I knew I was in trouble."
Lopez's mother watched him perform for the first time at a contest in Sebring years later. Her stomach was in knots the whole time.
"I had to be brave," said Sharleen Lopez, 68, of Wesley Chapel. "It was a wonderful thing (to watch,) yet you're scared to death."
She and Lopez's father, Paul, had been preparing for a trip to Titusville, where Lopez was slated to perform in the Valiant Air Command Warbird Airshow this weekend.
Since being let go from his job as a bank loan officer four months ago, Lopez made flying his full-time job.
He had gigs scheduled this year in Colorado, Michigan and Tennessee. He had also recently started an online radio show, Smoke On Aerobatics.
Lopez did not have any children. He was divorced and lived alone in the only apartment available to rent at the Zephyrhills Municipal Airport.
Helen Anne Travis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 435-7312.