HERNANDO BEACH — A U.S. Coast Guard air crew proved Wednesday that practice makes perfect.
The Clearwater-based crew was heading out on a training operation when it was thrust into a real-life rescue mission. Reports of a downed plane came over the radio moments before the crew was to depart.
The distressed plane went down shortly after 11 a.m., landing in the Gulf of Mexico in 3 feet of water about 1 mile west of Hernando Beach.
The pilot, who was traveling alone, survived and was able to swim to a marsh and call for help, according to the Coast Guard.
The Federal Aviation Administration reported that the Piper fixed-wing single-engine plane — which had been en route from Knoxville, Tenn., to St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport — lost power before crashing. The plane is registered to Turbo Arrow Aviation LLC out of Knoxville.
Around the same time, Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater Lts. Tom Huntley and Tyler Monez, co-pilots of an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter, were preparing to head out with a swimmer and a flight mechanic on a training mission to practice water rescues.
After getting a call from the FAA, however, the Coast Guard dispatched the helicopter, as well as two boats from its stations in Yankeetown and Clearwater-Sand Key, to Hernando.
Huntley and Monez squinted through the heavy, wind-driven rain that allowed only a quarter-mile of visibility. But they couldn't spot the plane's pilot, who called authorities to say that he could see the helicopter flying overhead.
Using the helicopter's onboard cameras, the flight mechanic spotted the bright yellow color of the man's life raft, which had blown ashore, and then the tail and wings of the partially submerged plane.
The crew quickly hoisted the shivering man into their helicopter, where they gave him a quick medical check and dry clothes before hauling him back to their Clearwater base for observation.
The crew believes a combination of engine problems and inclement weather contributed to the crash.
"He was very thankful," Huntley said of the pilot. "I think he was a little bit in shock."
The rescuers said the pilot, who didn't want to be identified and was released early Wednesday afternoon, was lucky. However, they shrugged off the title "hero."
"We train every day for that exact mission, so it was a pretty quick shift," Huntley said. "It's just the job," he added. "It comes with wearing a green flight suit. That's what we're here for."
Erin Sullivan contributed to this report. Keyonna Summers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4153.