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    Pilot injured as banner plane crashes into bay

    Coast Guard reservists aid the pilot, who clung to the wing after the crash. The accident is blamed on a faulty gasoline cap.


    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published July 22, 2001

    ST. PETERSBURG -- From atop a ladder as he was painting at the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station, Petty Officer Paul Gargagliano heard the typical loud rumble of a single-engine banner plane taking off over the water from Albert Whitted Municipal Airport.

    Then came a noise that was atypical: The engine cut out suddenly. "I thought, "Boy, it's quiet,' " Gargagliano recalled.

    The plane coasted to the water, and Gargagliano ran for help. The pilot, identified by the plane's owner as Corey Kempton, crawled out and awaited help from the wing of his plane as it bobbed in the water.

    The plane's owner blamed the accident on a faulty gasoline cap. Apparently the plane lost its cap during a recent trip to Marco Island, and the pilot replaced it with a cap that was not ventilated, said Tom Merrifield, owner of Advertising Air Force, which runs four banner planes from Albert Whitted.

    "It was a perfectly good airplane, ready to fly," Merrifield said.

    The Coast Guard reservists who rescued Kempton reported he had a two-inch gash in his forehead. The reservists -- identified by the Coast Guard as Richard Sapronetti, William Carl, Patrick McGrath and Tracy Harvey -- were preparing for a drill on their boat when they saw the plane.

    "We looked up and saw a plane going down in the water, and we responded accordingly," Sapronetti said.

    In March, the Pinellas County Commission banned banner towing from the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport. At the time, a banner operator threatened legal action because the Federal Aviation Authority states airports must allow banner plane operations unless they pose a safety hazard.

    Merrifield, the plane's owner, said the plane that crashed Saturday was a single-engine Piper Cub J-3 built in 1946. A salvage crew removed the plane from the water Saturday afternoon.

    "It's already out of the water, in the hangar," Merrifield said.

    Another 1946 Piper Cub J-3 Merrifield owns was involved in a crash in August. That plane, featured in the 1985 John Candy movie Summer Rental, still is flying.

    Merrifield estimated value of the plane involved in Saturday's crash at $60,000.

    "Sometimes simple things cause not-simple problems," Merrifield said.

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