ST. PETERSBURG — A gauge flickered off. The engine sounded odd — rough.
Tom Beaman radioed Albert Whitted Airport Friday and told them what was happening. One minute later, as he soared 1,000 feet above Boca Ciega Bay, the Cessna's engine died.
Below him stretched the dark water of the bay; to the south the 61-year-old spotted the Isla Del Sol Yacht and Country Club.
Should he crash land on the golf course or in the water?
He cracked the plane's door and began a prayer. He reached behind him and grabbed his life jacket.
Inside the country club, John Dunn and his wife, Nancy, were planning a weekend soiree with the club director, Alan Skipper. They sat in a room of empty dining tables — two forks on the left, fanning green napkins in front of crystal glassware. Normally they sit near the window to watch the dolphins splash in the bay.
"Look at that," Skipper said.
Nancy thought it was a sea plane, only she didn't see pontoons on the bottom.
"Oh, my gosh he's landing," Dunn said as he stood from his chair.
Beaman has 43 years of flying experience and has practiced for crash landings, he said. The Clearwater doctor has never had any engine trouble or mishaps before.
On Friday morning, he left from Albert Whitted, flew over Seminole and planned to hug the bay. The sky was a bit overcast, but not a bad day. He has been flying this area since the 1970s.
When the engine died he flipped a few switches and tried a few tricks to start it up. But as it became clear he was dropping, it was only a matter of where.
The plane hit the water at about 45 mph and the wheels tore into the waves. The plane flipped on its nose and Beaman's face slammed against the front window, leaving a curving scrape on his forehead. With his life jacket already on, he threw open the door.
Two boats raced from the far side of the bay. One boater scooped Beaman up and let him use a cell phone to call his wife.
Within two minutes the water swallowed the little Cessna. Paramedics treated Beaman for a few bumps and scratches, but the lanky man made light of the crash, still wearing his bloodied and seawater-soaked clothes.
Why didn't he land on the golf course?
"I've never liked golf," he joked.
As he walked across the country club parking lot to meet his wife and sister, shivering and wrapped in a towel, a man asked if he was okay. It's not every day someone swims away from a plane crash, the man yelled out.
Inside the country club, the director and the Dunns told each other it was like slow-motion, like watching TV. A bartender walked into the dining hall and told them the man who survived the crash was seated at the pool side bar.
"Someone buy that man a drink," Skipper said.
Beaman ordered three Diet Cokes. He sat next to his wife and sister and thanked God they had not been with him that day.
Weston Phippen can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8321