Miami Beach

Owner: Banner-plane pilot avoided sunbathers in Miami Beach ocean crash

When a banner plane lost power over Miami Beach, the pilot steered clear of the sand and ditched in the water, the company’s owner said Sunday.

At 500 feet in the air, the plane’s engine stopped, giving the pilot just a few seconds to decide on a course of action.

“He didn’t attempt to land on the beach,” said Robert Benyo, owner of Aerial Banners Inc. in Pembroke Pines, the company that operates the plane.

“Safety is the most important thing, and he knew there were people on the shore,” he said. “You only have about 25 seconds to decide what you’re going to do. He did an absolutely amazing job protecting the public and himself from harm.”

Two sand crash-landings may have been on the pilot’s mind.

In July, a man and his 9-year-old daughter walking along a Southwest Florida beach on a Sunday were killed by a single-engine Piper that attempted to land near Sarasota. A few days later, a Cessna Skyhawk used the Miami Beach sand as a landing strip because of engine trouble. That landing, on 57th Street, about a mile north of Saturday’s banner-plane ocean crash, happened on a Tuesday when the beach was less crowded.

Pilot Brian Haggerty told Miami Herald news partner CBS4 that he was almost at the end of his two-hour flight when trouble started.

“I had about two more loops to do and everything was going well, and then the engine started to falter and I pushed the throttle up and then it completely quit,” Haggerty said. “It’s about 20 seconds between engine first faltering until I was in the water.”

The banner plane that went down was a familiar sight above town, with an “Army” motif and toting ads for South Beach clubs and other businesses along the shoreline.

Benyo, the plane owner, said the pilot is a retired air force colonel.

Witnesses said he managed a “controlled descent” Saturday off Miami Beach near 45th Street and Collins Avenue, just north of the Fontainebleau hotel.

The pilot suffered a cut to the head, but no one else was injured. The incident is under investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board.

Haggerty told CBS4 that he checked the water below to make sure there were no boats in the area, then called on the radio.

“The engine quit. I’m going in the water,” he said. Benyo said that when divers first took a look at the plane in the water, a fuel pack was missing.

“We’re suspecting the fuel was sucked out, leaked out of the tank while he was in flight,” he said.

Perhaps the biggest loss was the plane, a Cessna L19-305A. When the military-green aircraft was pulled out of the water late Saturday evening, it bore the words “Army” on both sides, and bright, orange fringes covered the tail.

The small aircraft built in 1951 withstood service in Vietnam and may have seen action in Korea as a military observer, but the tide off Miami Beach was enough to do it in.

“It’s been repainted but those are pretty much original army colors,” Benyo said. “It suffered minor damage on landing, but if you looked at it now, you wouldn’t think anyone survived. That was mother nature. It was being tossed around by the waves.”

Benyo said the aircraft had not been involved in another crash.

The pilot, who was rescued by Miami Beach Ocean Rescue with help from jet skiers in the water, was released from the hospital and is in good condition.

“I’d imagine he’ll be here tomorrow,” Benyo said Sunday.