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Pilot is unscathed after crash into bay

Mike Heagerty still figures driving a taxi during the week is more dangerous than his weekend job towing banners behind an airplane.

Of course, his taxi isn't submerged in Tampa Bay.

That's exactly where the single-engine Piper airplane he was piloting ended up Sunday after its engine sputtered and then died in a cloud of black smoke immediately after takeoff at Albert Whitted Municipal Airport.

Heagerty, 41, who works for Advertising Air Force, said he tried to turn the plane and glide to a safe landing. But the plane, just 50 feet off the water, wasn't high enough to make it.

As he yelled "Mayday! Mayday!" into his radio, the plane hit the water just a few yards off the runway and flipped. Heagerty unbuckled his seat harness, opened the cockpit door and swam to the surface, where the Coast Guard awaited him.

The St. Petersburg resident suffered just a scratch on his leg in the 12:30 p.m. crash.

"I'm feeling pretty lucky right now _ maybe I should go out and buy a lottery ticket," Heagerty said 15 minutes after the crash. "I guess that's it for work today."

When he crashed, Heagerty had not yet attached to his plane the banner he planned to fly between Clearwater Beach and Siesta Key. Usually, tow planes equipped with a special hook fly low over the runway and grab the banner as it lies on the ground.

By Sunday night, the plane had been removed from the bay.

The banner Heagerty planned to tow Sunday contained just one word: Budweiser.

"I think when I get out of here I'm going to go home and have one," he said. "As a matter of fact, I think I'll have a few."