PORT RICHEY — John Paul Donnenfield had become a regular sight off the Port Richey coast, performing aerial acrobatics over the gulf in his Pitts single-seater aircraft.
Family members gathered at Brasher Park on Monday to watch the latest impromptu air show, and some strangers came out to watch, too. Donnenfield, 33, did a series of loops in the red and white biplane, each time diving closer to the gulf waters before pulling back toward the sky.
"He must have a cast iron stomach to do the loops he's doing," Michael McGraw told his wife, Lisa, who came to the park from their home nearby to watch.
Then about noon, authorities said, the engine sputtered and stalled. The aircraft plunged into the Gulf of Mexico, about 200 yards from the shore. Donnenfield's wife screamed.
Donnenfield, who worked as a pilot for United Airlines, died in the crash, said Port Richey Police Officer Gerard DeCanio.
"He was doing many, many, many tricks, around and around. He was doing fantastic and then all of the sudden it (the engine) just cut out," said Sharon Hopkins, a Pasco school bus driver who took her lunch break at Brasher Park to watch the aerial acrobatics. "God forbid, we never expected this catastrophe," she said.
Police said Donnenfield was the only person in the plane. He had taken off about 11:30 a.m. from the airstrip in New Port Richey's Hidden Lake Estates, an aviation community where he lived.
Allen Schunk, who was kayaking off the coast of Brasher Park, saw the plane go down. He paddled to the wreckage along with some commercial boaters who cut Donnenfield's body from the plane. Boats took emergency responders to the wreckage, but it was too late to revive the pilot. Pasco Fire Rescue pronounced him dead at 12:38 p.m.
DeCanio said the investigation now passes to the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board.