Emergency vehicles respond when a caller reports a plane crash in the bay. But it turns out to be an optical illusion called the North Bay Visual Approach.
By JEAN HELLER and LEANORA MINAI
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2001
CLEARWATER -- It was a breathtaking sight. The big Boeing 727 flying low over Tampa Bay banked hard to the right, then hard to the left and sank toward water south of the Courtney Campbell Parkway.
Someone with a cellular phone called 911 at 3:29 p.m. Thursday and told dispatchers that a large commercial aircraft had hit the water.
"We only received one call," said John Beebe, supervisor of Pinellas County Emergency Communications. "We had to go on it, and we went with it as a full plane crash response and upgraded it as a water rescue."
Within four minutes, the first emergency vehicle was at the scene, followed by 12 more.
Pinellas County EMS director Chuck Kearns also responded.
But there was no crash.
Air traffic control tower personnel at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport think they can explain the confusion.
When an airliner approaches Runway 17-Left from the north, the normal path would put it at a low altitude over homes between State Road 580 and State Road 60. Residents have long complained of the noise.
So controllers put the aircraft on a parallel course more to the east, over the waters of Safety Harbor and Tampa Bay.
"When they get to the water treatment plant (at the west end of the causeway), they have to execute a sharp right turn and then a sharp left turn to put them back on final approach," said Sandra Bathon, air traffic manager at the airport. "It's strictly a noise-abatement maneuver."
Tower supervisor David Edmunds was giving a tour of the tower Thursday when the ATA 727 made the maneuver, called the North Bay Visual Approach.
"Somebody coming across the Bayside Bridge who's never seen the maneuver before might well think the plane is going down," Edmunds said. "It's a very impressive maneuver."