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Pilot left unharmed by plunge 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 at 12:30 p.m. Sunday after its engine sputtered and 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, didn't to make it.

As he yelled, "Mayday! Mayday!" into his radio, the plane hit the water 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 a scratch on his leg.

"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."

The plane was removed from the bay.

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 fly low over the runway and snag the banner with a hook as it lies on the ground. 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."