Mike Skaggs never got his radio-controlled model airplane into the air Tuesday. Instead, Skaggs watched as a Piper Arrow dropped from the sky into a cow pasture next to the Brandon Model Flyers airfield.
"I heard it spit and sputter. Then I saw trees and bushes flying. There was a lot of scratching sounds," Skaggs said.
He ran through clusters of 3-foot scrub trees, bracing himself for human carnage. Instead, he found a flight instructor and his student shaken but unhurt.
Instructor Timothy Stahlschmidt, 30, of Clearwater, and pilot Thomas Wegge, 38, of Tampa, walked away from the 10 a.m. crash. Neither wanted to talk afterward.
The single-engine airplane had taken off from Vandenberg Airport moments earlier. They told police a bird flew into the airplane's engine, severing the fuel line. The airplane lost power and started dropping.
That's when Tampa police officer D. Brunner spotted the white airplane flying low over industrial buildings on Broadway, just east of U.S. 301.
The plane was wobbling as it cleared a tree line, then the pilot apparently got it smoothed out and raised the nose.
"He flared it over the trees. He did a good job keeping it from flipping over," Brunner said.
The plane scratched over the small trees. It left tire marks where it touched down, then the wing caught a larger tree and the plane started spinning.
But it stayed upright. The only blood at the scene belonged to the bird that caused the crash. It was unclear whether the instructor or the student pilot landed the plane.
Brunner said it was lucky the airplane missed an industrial area and the large trees nearby and instead came down about 25 yards from a small airfield used by model airplane enthusiasts. The 400-foot runway would have handled the Piper, but the pilot didn't have enough power to make it.
The airplane was owned by Leading Edge Aviation Services. Company officials declined comment.
But Skaggs and Brunner couldn't stop talking about the sight of a plane falling from the sky.
"I thought I'd seen everything," said Brunner, a police officer who patrols the tough neighborhoods of Three Mile Creek. "But I'd never seen anything like that."