TAMPA — The officers heard the pilot's distress call about 10 minutes before midnight. From the air, they scanned the horizon.
"There he is," said Dave Dennison, pilot of the Tampa police helicopter. An infrared camera zeroed in on the faint flickering speck.
Dennison and his partner, Officer Brian Gentry, had been on a routine air patrol Thursday night over Davis Islands, about five miles away. Now, approaching Tampa International Airport, they watched the plane grow to a bright, burning orb. They saw it sail over cars and semitrailer trucks on the Veterans Expressway. They saw it breach the airport fence line and skip over a retention pond.
Then they saw it crash.
In an audio recording of their radio traffic, both can be heard gasping. "It looks like he was short," Dennison reported.
So began a dramatic rescue effort, much of it captured on video, that ended in the successful retrieval of the pilot from a field just off the corner of Hillsborough Avenue and the Veterans Expressway.
Airport officials identified the pilot as Mark E. Love, 58, of Tampa. He remained hospitalized Friday in stable condition, police said, having suffered a broken ankle and other injuries in the crash. He was expected to survive.
It is still unknown what caused the crash of the small Cessna plane. The National Transportation Safety Board was set to investigate the incident. Federal Aviation Administration records show Love is a certified commercial pilot.
The police officers landed near the crash site. Gentry stepped out and doused the engine with a fire extinguisher. He pried inside the wreckage and took hold of Love, who was unconscious. He dragged Love out and set him down in the grass. Firefighters arrived shortly afterward.
Gentry later said Love briefly regained consciousness when he was yanked free of the plane, where he was "sandwiched" between his seat and part of the cockpit. "He said he was in pain," Gentry recalled.
At a news conference held in a police hangar at the airport Friday, Dennison and Gentry, who have flown together for about five years, played down their actions.
The pair rarely act as first responders to emergencies, Dennison said, more typically providing air reconnaissance to police on the ground. They said credit belonged to the pilot for successfully bringing down a failing airplane in a city without injuring anyone else.
Gentry said the fire at the crash site was limited and it was unlikely the airplane would have exploded.
"A lot of that seems to be sensationalized from Hollywood," Gentry said.
Speaking after the officers, police Chief Jane Castor was less restrained in her assessment of the incident. "They're trying to play this down," Castor said. "What they did last night was save this individual's life. There's no doubt about that."
The event was a respite for Castor from negative publicity about other officers' actions that has buffeted the Police Department for months. At a news conference Thursday, she had announced that one of the department's school resource officers was fired and charged with having sex with a teen student.
Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who was also present at the Friday news conference honoring the police helicopter pilots, said their heroics were "indicative of the great men and women who serve in this department."
"It was an amazing act of aviation," Buckhorn said. "It was an amazing act of bravery."
Dennison said he thought to aim the helicopter's camera at the scene unfolding in front of him while Gentry pulled Love from the airplane. It was a move intended, Dennison said, to "help our city look at something" in their Police Department they might not otherwise see.
"There's a lot of things that we're involved in that the public doesn't get to be a part of and the media doesn't get to be a part of," Dennison said.
The wrecked plane remained near a retention pond at the northwest corner of the airport Friday morning, its right wing partially buried in the grass, the left tilted in the air.
The plane's tail number is registered to AirNet Systems, a small express cargo airline in Columbus, Ohio. The flight originated in Valdosta, Ga., according to airport flight records.
A company representative referred all questions Friday morning to the NTSB.
Times staff writer Claire Wiseman, staff photographer Skip O'Rourke and news researcher John Martin contributed to this report.