Tampa police helicopter pilot Dave Dennison and flight observer Brian Gentry were almost halfway into their 12-hour night shift Thursday when they heard the stressed voice of a pilot in a small plane approaching Tampa International Airport just before midnight.
A pilot himself, Dennison could tell by the tone of the man's voice that something was seriously wrong, though the pilot, identified as 58-year-old Mark E. Love, of Tampa, never declared an emergency.
The helicopter was over the intersection of Interstate 275 and Cypress Street, and Dennison made a beeline toward the airport, telling air traffic controllers to hold all flights until they got there.
Dennison and Gentry spotted the Cessna from about five miles away amid a million twinkling lights around Memorial Highway and Hillsborough Avenue.
"We watched as it crashed," Dennison said.
Getting close to the downed plane and at an altitude of about 200 feet, the only thing Dennison said to Gentry was this: "I'm putting you on the ground."
He had to land in unfamiliar territory, in the dark, saying it was like landing a Blackhawk military helicopter in combat. The terrain looked flat, but it could be swampy. It was about 30 yards south of passing traffic on Hillsborough Avenue.
"When we came in," he said, "we came in pretty hard and fast."
Dennison set the helicopter down about 20 yards from the crashed Cessna, its engine heat signature glowing bright white on his night goggles.
Gentry hopped out of the chopper and ran toward the airplane, which came to rest on the bank of a retention pond on the northwest corner of the airport property. Dennison was required to stay with the chopper because he had to perform a two-minute shut down procedure. But he did point the helicopter's mounted heat-sensitive camera at the airplane and videotaped Gentry's bravery as he ran toward the wreckage, where a fire was sparking in the engine compartment.
Gentry said he didn't worry much about the fire. He figured it was residual oil or fuel and that the plane wouldn't explode.
"That's Hollywood," he said.
Gentry's primary focus was extricating the pilot. He was having a hard time of it.
"I couldn't get him out," he said, "The pilot-side door was pinned. It all happened so fast. It was so frustrating that I couldn't get him out.
"I didn't know what was on the other side of the aircraft," he said, but he would have to go there to get to the pilot, who was unconscious.
He used a fire extinguisher to douse the small flames in the engine compartment and ran to the other side of the plane, where he was able to pull the door open.
Love was pinned between his seat and the control panel. Gentry unbuckled the man and pulled him through the right side of the plane. As he struggled to pull him away, the pilot regained consciousness and began moving his legs, assisting Gentry, who was dragging him through the grass away from the plane.
Love told Gentry he was in a lot of pain; that he couldn't remember what happened and the he did not know where he was.
The whole ordeal began with the distress call 11:48 p.m. The plane cashed three minutes later, and the helicopter landed within minutes of that.
Tampa police posted the video taken by the helicopter camera showing the crash and dramatic rescue. The grainy, night-vision video shows the plane hitting the ground. After the helicopter landed, the video shows Gentry running to the wreckage and rescuing the pilot, with the engine compartment glowing from heat.
Both officers downplayed their efforts, saying their actions were almost reflexive.
"We were just doing our jobs," Dennison said. "The real hero is the pilot. He was in a bad situation and he avoided causing injuries to others.
"That pilot did a good job," Dennison said. "Had he made it another 30 feet (to the runway), we might not be having this interview."
Tampa police Chief Jane Castor said her officers were heroes
"What they did last night," she said, "was save this individual's life."
Love was taken to St. Joseph's Hospital by a Tampa Fire Rescue ambulance and remained in critical condition Friday afternoon, police said. He sustained serious injuries, including facial fractures, but they weren't considered life-threatening.
Airport officials said Love had sent out a radio distress call that his instruments indicated low oil pressure.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration website, the Cessna lost power and landed short of the runway on the north side of the airport. Love was the only one on board, the FAA said.
"Thanks to the quick thinking and heroic actions of the Tampa Police Department's helicopter crew, the pilot of the single engine plane that crashed late Thursday night is alive," said Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano. "Officers Brian Gentry and Dave Dennison truly are Tampa's finest."
According to police personnel records, Dennison, who also is a fishing charter boat captain, joined the department in October 2000, became a flight observer in March 2002 and was promoted to pilot in September 2008.
Gentry joined the department in 1995 and was assigned to the aviation unit in 2010. He, too, is a licensed helicopter pilot. Gentry and Dennison have been partners in the helicopter for about five years and alternate flying duties.
Before joining the aviation unit, Gentry worked 17 years as a road patrol officer, he said.
The 1979 Cessna 210N is owned by Flight Express Inc., a subsidiary of AirNet Cargo Charter Services, a small-package delivery service based in Columbus, Ohio. The company's website says it has 130 planes and flies 200 flights a night across the United States.
A person who answered the phone for AirNet in Tampa on Friday morning declined to comment about the crash.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators were expected to examine the plane and begin their investigation Friday.
Dennison and Gentry remained at the scene for about two hours while firefighters made sure the fire was out. Dennison said he couldn't take off because his chopper was hemmed in by fire engines.
After that, he said, "we just went back to work.
"It was just a routine night for us after that."
Copyright 2013 - Tampa Tribune, Fla.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service