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Plane crash leaves 2 hurt

An ultralight pilot is in serious condition after his aircraft plunges into the Anclote River.

By KATHERINE GAZELLA and ROBERT FARLEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 24, 2000


TARPON SPRINGS -- A pilot who had a rough landing in the Anclote River in December crashed his ultralight plane near the same spot Tuesday, injuring himself and a passenger.

Mike Dawson, 50, of Holiday was listed in serious condition Tuesday night at Tampa General Hospital. He told rescuers his lower back was sore and his legs were numb.

The passenger, Eric Stallworth, 40, of Holiday, had two cracked vertebrae, authorities said.

The two-seater amphibious plane crashed about 4 p.m., shortly after it took off near Salt Lake in North Pinellas County, just south of the county line.

Vincent Rella and his son were fishing in the Anclote River when they heard a loud noise, then saw a red and white wing sticking out of a marsh.

"The plane! The plane!" Rella shouted to his son.

The two raced their boat toward the plane and called 911 from a cellular phone. Moments later, they got to the plane and found Dawson and Stallworth.

Dawson couldn't move. Stallworth's injuries were less serious, and he was later admitted for observation at Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital in Tarpon Springs. He was listed in stable condition Tuesday night.

Stallworth told Tarpon Springs police Officer Marc Parsons he and Dawson have flown together 40 to 50 times.

On Tuesday, he said, the plane was about 50 feet in the air when the engine sputtered and the plane nosedived into the water. It wasn't clear what caused the engine problems, he said.

The plane was destroyed, Tarpon Springs police Sgt. Allen MacKenzie said.

For safety reasons, officers disabled an explosive parachute deployment system that was sitting on the plane's gas tank, he said. The wreckage will remain in the marshes until Dawson removes it, MacKenzie said.

Federal aviation officials will not investigate the crash because ultralights are not regulated aircraft, he said.

Dawson, a resident of Holiday Lake Estates, had another accident in December while flying his amphibious Highcraft Buccaneer II, a plane that matches the description of the one that crashed Tuesday.

At the time, he said a wheel on the plane improperly extended below the pontoon and caught on a sandbar. The plane slammed into the Anclote River, not far from Tuesday's crash site.

"Everybody overreacted," Dawson said then. "It wasn't a plane crash, it was a landing. That's what it was."

Residents of the nearby Riverwatch subdivision said Tuesday that they often saw Dawson flying his plane in the area. Some complained that he flew a little too close to their homes.

"I was wondering when he would go down," said Wuz Maginnes, whose home backs up to the river. "It's pretty scary to go out on the lanai and watch him. ... To each his own, I guess."

He said Dawson often flew the plane just a few feet over the rooftops.

"I don't think he should be out doing this," he said. "This is a nice residential neighborhood."

Tarpon Springs resident Gary Grubbs flew over the area in his helicopter Tuesday afternoon and saw the crashed plane. He immediately recognized the red and white ultralight.

"I said, "That's Mike out there,"' he recalled later.

He landed the helicopter and later used his airboat to take rescuers and other officials to the crash site. The boat was used to carry Dawson back to shore.

Grubbs is a regular at the Boat Club bar on the Anclote River, which Dawson owns. The bar is a favorite among locals, who jokingly refer to the blue-collar establishment as "the country club," Grubbs said.

Dawson kept his plane next to the bar and often launched it from a ramp there.

Grubbs said he often saw Dawson flying the ultralight. Grubbs, who flies a helicopter and runs a business that cleans up after hurricanes and other natural disasters, considers ultralights dangerous.

"I've been flying a helicopter 20 years. But I wouldn't fly one of those," Grubbs said.

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Times Staff Writer Ed Quioco and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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