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Plane makes emergency landing near Tyrone Square Mall in St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — After a successful shopping trip Thursday afternoon that netted him a pair of new shoes, Richard O'Brien was ready to leave Tyrone Square Mall.

"I pulled up to the stop sign, looked left. Traffic was stopped," the 23-year-old said. "I looked right, and there was a big, yellow plane heading toward me."

O'Brien, a recent college graduate who is visiting from London, didn't have time to put his rented Chrysler sedan in reverse.

So he ducked.

When he looked up moments later, the plane sat just inches from his window. The plane had nudged his car's front bumper, leaving a small scratch.

The pilot had made a safe and successful emergency landing on Tyrone Boulevard without anyone getting hurt.

"This has definitely been an interesting holiday," O'Brien said.

In a decade of flying, the unidentified 25-year-old pilot had never had to make an emergency landing, emergency officials said. His first, at about 6:43 p.m. Thursday, was in a spectacular setting: on a public street traveled by 30,500 vehicles a day, in front of a shopping mall bustling with back-to-school shoppers.

The single-seat Piper PA-25-260 Pawnee, which was towing a Geico advertising banner, had engine trouble on its way back to Albert Whitted Airport from a trip along the area's beaches, authorities said.

The pilot, who does about 10 to 12 such flights a week, knew he wouldn't make it back to the downtown airport. He was only 1,000 feet in the air and had to act fast, St. Petersburg Fire and Rescue officials said.

He released the banner, which landed on top of a Walgreens at 2195 66th St. N, causing no damage.

"Within five seconds, he was on Tyrone Boulevard," said District Chief Michael Domante.

The plane struck a tree with its left wing as it descended. The pilot avoided hitting a car just before landing, the chief said, but couldn't avoid sideswiping O'Brien's car on the ground.

No one was injured. No fuel leakage was reported, either.

Officials did not release the pilot's name Thursday.

• • •

The scene attracted hundreds of gawkers.

Mall security guards snapped cell phone photos while directing traffic in the parking lot. Teens rode up on bikes. Women carrying Macy's and Victoria's Secret bags trotted out and watched as police investigated. At Barnes & Noble, directly across from where the plane landed, bewildered customers came out, trying to get a better view.

"Oh my God, it's a plane," said Kendra White, 28, of St. Petersburg. "It's kind of amazing to see this, and kind of scary, too."

White and her husband live nearby, and had been school shopping at the mall just minutes before the landing.

Several people at the scene also said they recalled seeing the plane hours earlier, as it made its way around town pulling the big banner.

• • •

The plane is owned by Advertising Air Force, located at Albert Whitted Airport, according to firefighters.

The pilot had taken off about 3 p.m. Thursday on a route that took him to Clearwater, then Sarasota, then Madeira Beach.

Witnesses reported hearing the engine sputter and die, and saw the plane veer toward the mall.

"It sounded pretty smooth at first," said Matthew Lord, 31, of St. Petersburg. "Then it started to sputter. … And then we didn't hear anything."

The plane was built in 1974, according to federal records, and that type of plane is commonly used for dusting crops and towing banners.

Advertising Air Force is a longtime tenant at Albert Whitted and one of the bay area's most prominent banner advertising businesses.

The Federal Aviation Administration dispatched safety inspectors to investigate. The owner's insurance company is responsible for towing the plane to a hangar, where it will be examined as part of the investigation.

"I don't know if you can do a perfect landing in this situation," Domante said. "But he did a pretty good job, considering the situation."

Times staff writer Jamal Thalji and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8643.

The pilot of the small plane that made an emergency landing Thursday sits next to his aircraft on Tyrone Boulevard in St. Petersburg. Nobody was hurt.

KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times

The pilot of the small plane that made an emergency landing Thursday sits next to his aircraft on Tyrone Boulevard in St. Petersburg. Nobody was hurt.

Plane makes emergency landing near Tyrone Square Mall in St. Petersburg 08/12/10 [Last modified: Friday, August 13, 2010 8:06am]

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