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Sun, Jan 25, 2004

FAA: Florida Pilot 'In Control Until Last Second'

Examiner Details Last Moment Of Flight

His prop windmilling uselessly, Larry "Mike" Bradshaw fought heroically to save his Cessna 150 until the very end. That word comes from FAA Flight Examiner Walt Bradshaw (no relation to Larry).

Walt Bradshaw told a memorial service Wednesday night that the certified flight instructor aboard the small 150 had extended his flaps and tried to stretch his glide after apparent engine failure near Venice Municipal Airport (FL) Saturday night. Both Mike Bradshaw and his student, 57-year old Miguel Hernandez, were killed in the accident, which went undiscovered for 19 hours. This, in spite of at least one 911 call moments after the plane went down in thick woods.

"Mike did everything he could in his power to make that plane land," Bradshaw said. "He was in control until the last second, just like he should be." Walt Bradshaw signed Mike off on his IFR ticket more than a year ago. Shortly after that, Mike became a flight instructor.

Wednesday's memorial included a local veterans color guard and two flags, folded and presented to Bradshaw's 20-year old widow, Heidi, by Charlotte County deputies, honoring his military service from 1994 until 2000.

Examiner Bradshaw said Mike Bradshaw and Hernandez had just taken off from Venice Municipal and were flying less than 400 feet AGL with a right cross-wind when the engine began to die. Apparently trying for a soft landing, the 150s wing caught a tree. The small plane wrapped itself around a cabbage palm, he said.

Medical examiners, worried that the two men on board had spent hours trapped in the wreckage before dying, now say they were killed on impact. But questions remain as to why an eyewitness report of a plane down wasn't acted upon by the Venice Police and the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office. Cindy Toepfer and her husband, Sheldon, said they heard and saw the 150 flying near their home at around 7:00 pm EST Saturday night. Cindy told the Venice Sun that she heard the engine sputter.

"Then it disappeared in the trees. The path was almost like a horseshoe pointed down," she said. "Then I heard -- or I don't know whether I felt it or heard it -- the impact."

Her call to Sarasota County 911, however, was apparently unheeded. At first, the 911 operator gave Toepfer a toll-free number to call to report the accident, refusing to dispatch a search team. Toepfer says the number she called was not in service, so she called 911 again. Toepfer says the 911 operator then promised to call "the tower" and notify "our pilots."

Inexplicably, the 911 operator called the tower at Sarasota-Bradenton. There is no manned tower at Venice. Of course, no one at Sarasota Bradenton knew anything about a missing aircraft. It wasn't until one of Hernandez's family members called to report a missing aircraft that the search actually began. The downed 150 was spotted by the Civil Air Patrol 19 hours after the crash.

"Obviously, there was a mix-up in communications somewhere," said Don Lee, a Charlotte County Airport Authority member. "If (Toepfer) called and said she saw the plane go down in Venice, I don't know why they would go to Sarasota to report it."

"It wasn't like they blew her off," said Venice Police Sergeant Mike Trainer, when asked for his opinion of the response of the sheriff's dispatcher. The Sheriff's Office is now reviewing its handling of the Toepfer call.

"I am so sorry for (Toepfer) and what she's going through, thinking that she might have possibly saved their lives," said Eve Gillooley of Lakeland (FL), the oldest of Hernandez's two daughters. "But, (my father) didn't survive, and I want her to know he died at impact. He had no pain. As far as our family was concerned, it was a shock, but things like this happen."

Gillooley said her father was practicing night take-offs and landings before the crash. After that, she said he planned to Lakeland for her son's birthday. "It was to be a surprise," she said.

During Wednesday's service, Heidi Bradshaw said she met her husband in an internet chat room. Originally from New York, she travelled to Florida to be with Mike. The couple were soon married. "We were a very happy couple," she said. "We laughed, we cried. To me, it seemed like 20 years, but it was only a year and a half." She said her husband died doing what he loved best.

Larry "Mike" Bradshaw and Miguel Hernandez have gone west. Happy landings, gentlemen.

FMI: www.ntsb.gov

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