Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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 [email protected] 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]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Tampa-based vXchnge secures $200M loan to expand operations


    TAMPA — Tampa-based vXchnge, which operates data centers in 14 metro areas, has secured a loan for roughly $200 million for "major expansions and enhancements."

    Tampa-based vXchnge, a data center provider, secured a $200 million loan. Pictured is CEO Keith Olsen. | [Courtesy of vXchnge]
  2. Allegiant flight makes emergency landing in California after smoke fills cabin


    FRESNO, Calif. — Smoke filled the cabin of an Allegiant Air jet after it landed at a California airport on Monday, forcing coughing passengers to cover their faces with shirts and firefighters to board the plane, authorities said.

    This frame from mobile phone video shows smoke inside an Allegiant Air jet after it landed at Fresno Yosemite International Airport in California's Central Valley, Monday, Sept. 25, 2017. Smoke filled the cabin of an Allegiant Air jet after it landed at the airport on Monday, forcing coughing passengers to cover their faces with shirts and firefighters to board the plane, authorities said. Allegiant said no passengers or any of the six crew members were injured. [Estevan Moreno via AP]
  3. Forecast: Sunny skies, drier air dominate throughout Tampa Bay region


    Drier air continues to filter into the Tampa Bay area on Tuesday, with clear skies and a slight chance of light rain during the afternoon.

    Tampa Bay's 7 day forecast. [WTSP]
  4. Florida education news: Makeup days, graduation honors, sex education and more


    MAKEUP DAYS: Hillsborough County schools will eliminate four early release days to meet minimum state time per course, after missing seven days because of Hurricane Irma. • Indian …

    School classrooms are back up and running after Hurricane Irma. Districts are now setting makeup schedules for time missed.
  5. Rick and Tom podcast: Bucs' Gerald McCoy frustrated with disrespectful fans


    Rick Stroud and Tom Jones discuss Gerald McCoy's latest comments on disrespectful fans who attack his teammates, Donald Trump, protests by DeSean Jackson and Mike Evans, and his respect for the …

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (93) warms up before an NFL game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minn., on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017.