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Plane in fatal crash raised from bay near Albert Whitted Airport

ST. PETERSBURG — Recovery workers retrieved a small plane Monday that crashed into Tampa Bay near Albert Whitted Airport on Sunday, killing the pilot.

It's the latest in a number of crashes by banner advertising planes at Albert Whitted over the years.

The Piper PA-23, registered to Aerial Banners Inc., crashed about 1 p.m., about 75 yards south of the airport's seawall.

Shortly after takeoff, pilot Donald Thomasson, 70, banked to the left and nose-dived into the water.

Witnesses said it sounded as if the plane lost power after it tried to pick up a banner. The plane sank quickly, leaving little time for emergency responders to save Thomasson, who was still strapped inside the cockpit of the single-seat plane.

The Coast Guard responded first, about six minutes after the crash. But it does not have a dive rescue team.

"We survey the area and get any information possible to set up a security patrol to make sure no one is going in the area who's not part of the search-and-rescue effort," said Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd class Ashley Johnson. "And we also ferry the person back to shore. And had the person been responsive, we would have conducted first aid on the person."

St. Petersburg Fire Rescue divers responded instead. Crews from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Pinellas Sheriff's Office also assisted the rescue effort.

Thomasson's body was transported the Coast Guard station near the airport.

Aerial Banners Inc. could not be reached Monday for comment.

"It's a dangerous business that we're in," said Robert Benyo, who owns a different banner advertising company that occasionally flies from Albert Whitted.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires companies to apply for a waiver to tow a banner. In 2007, the FAA revoked that waiver for Aerial Banners Inc.

"The revocation decision was reached after considering nine safety 'events,' ranging from paperwork violations to plane crashes, over the preceding two years," a court petition to review the FAA's decision states.

Some of these incidents, from 2005 to 2007, included crashes, a forced landing because a pilot ran out of fuel, and paperwork errors in maintenance forms.

The problems go back further.

The plane in Sunday's wreck was towed to a hangar bearing a sign that read "Advertising Air Force." That company and Aerial Banners have separate websites but share phone numbers.

City officials banned Advertising Air Force from Albert Whitted in 1986, partly because of how many crashes it had been involved in. The ban lasted about nine months.

Since then, some of the company's other crashes include:

• In 1994, an Advertising Air Force plane crashed onto a golf course due to engine problems.

• In 1997, a 6-foot metal pole rocketed into a St. Petersburg yard and nearly killed two people. The pole fell off an Advertising Air Force banner.

• In 1998, 2001 and as recently as March, Advertising Air Force planes crashed into the bay. In the March incident, the pilot picked up his banner and began his ascent when the engine suddenly failed. He crashed into the water but climbed free of the cockpit. Rescuers found him sitting atop the plane.

Thomasson's family did not want to comment Monday.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

Contact Weston Phippen at wphippen@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8321. Follow @westonphippen.

Plane in fatal crash raised from bay near Albert Whitted Airport 09/01/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 2, 2014 10:04am]
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