ST. PETERSBURG — Federal Aviation Administration investigators started their inquiry Friday into why a small airplane had to make an emergency landing — in front of Tyrone Square Mall, during back-to-school shopping, gliding in against traffic.
They may have some answers by next week, said FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen.
The single-seat Piper PA-25-260 Pawnee lost power about 6:40 p.m. Thursday while towing a Geico advertising banner back to Albert Whitted Airport, authorities said.
The pilot who brought it down safely is 25-year-old Steven Otterness of Lutz. He went to Tampa's Gaither High School and majored in aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle University. He's also a lefthanded pitcher drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in 2007.
Otterness told authorities that he was in the air for nearly four hours when his plane's engine suddenly malfunctioned. The pilot said he tried to restart the engine but couldn't. In seconds the plane dropped from 1,000 feet to ground level. Otterness cut the sign loose over a Walgreens lot at 2195 66th St. N to stay aloft.
He then glided in west for a landing on eastbound Tyrone Boulevard at 6:43 p.m. Thursday. The plane's left wing clipped a tree as the pilot avoided one vehicle, spinning the plane around on the street. The tail ended up sideswiping a rental car stopped at the mall entrance, across the street from Barnes & Noble. No one was injured.
"I did what I was trained to do," Otterness said. That comment was relayed by his employer's spokeswoman, Advertising Air Force, who said the pilot didn't want to talk publicly about his feat.
The FAA said that Otterness has a commercial pilot certificate and is rated to fly single-engine and multi-engine aircraft. He told authorities that he has 10 years of flight experience. The FAA allows pilots to tow banners after they demonstrate their "proficiency" in using a tow hook to pick them up off the ground and maneuver with them. But the FAA could not say Friday if Otterness had done so.
He's been with Advertising Air Force for about a year. The company pays $1,500 a month to rent a hangar and some land at Albert Whitted, but the lease is up this year. Airport officials said the company has had no incidents there since it changed hands in 2008.
An Advertising Air Force spokeswoman said Friday that the company is cooperating with the FAA and will continue to fly banners.
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.