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Pilot killed in crash followed dream

He hoped to fly the plane he was building at home within eight years.

By JONATHAN ABEL, Times Staff Writer
Published January 15, 2008

The Cessna that crashed Saturday in Old Tampa Bay is lifted by crane at the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport on Monday. Confusion over what runway to land on may have played a role in the crash that killed pilot Joseph Bellamy and his parents.
[Douglas R. Clifford | Times]
Joseph Bellamy, 31, was "a stickler" as a pilot, his life partner said.

Joseph Bellamy's dream outgrew his townhouse.

He needed a garage and a storage shed. Otherwise the wings of the plane he was building wouldn't fit through the door.

For that reason - and because Bellamy and his life partner, Eric G. Breidenbaugh, wanted to move to Florida - the couple relocated three years ago from Virginia to Pinellas Park.

In Pinellas, Bellamy found a pilot's paradise and a place to put down roots, recently completing his first year as a Big Brother to a 13-year-old boy.

But Bellamy's life was cut short Saturday at the age of 31. He died along with his parents, Gordon Bellamy, 55, and Susan Bellamy, 53, both of Palatka, when the Cessna Skyhawk 172 he was flying crashed just short of St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.

On Monday, the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office identified the cause of death for all three as drowning, with a contributing condition of blunt trauma.

A preliminary investigation suggests Bellamy might have been trying to land on the wrong runway. It is possible the plane stalled when he tried to correct the mistake. But after removing the plane from the water Monday, a National Transportation Safety Board investigator said it was too early to know what had caused the crash.

* * *

Bellamy spent Saturday entertaining his parents, who drove from Putnam County to visit him. The trio went out to lunch, then headed to the airport, according to Breidenbaugh.

Bellamy usually flew from the airport to Clearwater Beach, down to St. Pete Beach and then back to the airport. It's a flight Breidenbaugh took a number of times with his partner. They also flew as far away as Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Key West.

"He was a very good pilot," Breidenbaugh said. "He was a stickler. He followed that checkoff list by the book. ... He did everything correctly and didn't break any rules."

But something went wrong Saturday afternoon just before 3:39 p.m. when the plane dropped into Old Tampa Bay 100 yards short of the runway.

In the hours after the crash, divers from Clearwater Fire Rescue worked in darkness, searching the turbid water for bodies.

But Breidenbaugh didn't know anything about the disaster that befell his partner. An interior designer, Breidenbaugh was with a client that afternoon.

But he had a weird feeling something was wrong. By 6:45 p.m. his calls to Bellamy and Bellamy's father still hadn't been returned, so Breidenbaugh called the airport.

He asked the receptionist at Signature Flight Support if plane 7100Q had returned safely.

"She said there had been an incident with the plane and that's as much as she would tell me," Breidenbaugh recalled. "She said, 'I'm sorry. Due to policy, since you are not an actual family member, I cannot give you the information.'"

Instead, Breidenbaugh read about his partner's death on the Internet.

"He was just a great guy, Joe was. Same with his family," Breidenbaugh said. "His family, from day one, invited me into their home. I was part of them. Joe would do anything for anyone, including his family."

Bellamy and Breidenbaugh met in Baltimore. They moved in together exactly one year later and wore matching rings, which they never took off. They had been life partners going on six years.

Bellamy, a computer technician for Raymond James, had worked for AOL when he lived outside Washington, D.C.

He was four years into his dream of building an RV-8 two-seat airplane, capable of flying 200 mph. Bellamy kept the fuselage in the garage and the wings in a storage shed. Working in spare moments here and there, he hoped to finish the painstaking assembly in five to eight years, according to his partner.

A year ago, he became a Big Brother to 13-year-old Dustin Sullivan. Bellamy took his Little Brother bike-riding, taught him and his two brothers to play tennis and made sure they all had presents for Christmas.

Just last week, Bellamy and Dustin went to the circus.

"All three of my boys are upset," said Dustin's mother, Mary Jo Sullivan. "They've all been touched by this. Joe was always there."

Bellamy sometimes combined his passion for flight with his interest in mentoring, volunteering through a local organization to take children up in the air.

A memorial service is scheduled for Thursday at the Trinity Methodist Church in Palatka.

Instead of flowers, mourners are asked to donate to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Pinellas, the Human Rights Campaign or the Pinellas Pilots Association.

Jonathan Abel can be reached at or 727 445-4157.

[Last modified January 14, 2008, 23:40:02]

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