Pilot dead after plane crashes into building near Fort Lauderdale Beach

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. (WSVN) - A pilot has died after a plane crashed into a condominium near Fort Lauderdale Beach.

Just before 12 p.m. Friday, a Piper PA-25 banner plane went down in the area of Oakland Park Boulevard and A1A.

Officials said the pilot was the only person on board of the crashed plane, and no injuries were reported on the ground because of the crash.

The Federal Aviation Administration said the plane took off from North Perry Airport in Pembroke Pines and was seen flying over Fort Lauderdale Beach pulling a banner before the collision.

Surveillance video captured the plane moments before it crashed into the Berkley South Condominium building near the beach.

One witness said, “I said, ‘Oh, my God. Oh, my God.’ When I looked across, I saw the tail of the plane.”

Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue Chief Steven Gollan said the building was under construction but was occupied at the time of the crash.

He confirmed that the structural damage seen as a large hole on the side of the building was from the plane crash and not from the renovations.

“It’s a recipe for disaster,” Gollan said, “especially when you have 20 individuals there that are just doing their job, working. There’s no telling what could have happened.”

Jeff Walker, who was working nearby, said he saw the yellow banner get snagged on something before it went down.

“It got caught on the bushes over there on the next street,” Walker said. “He was trying to come this way, but the banner was hanging too low. When it got caught, it just hit that building.”

Roger Miller, a resident of the high-rise building that the plane hit, shared a photo to 7News of what looked like a possible part of the plane inside his kitchen.

“‘Boom! It wasn’t really a ‘Bang!’ It was a low-pitched boom when the plane hit,” Miller recalled. “It went through the wall and threw the dishwasher across the room, and I would’ve been under that had I gone to the kitchen just seconds earlier. I guess tonight, I’ll probably go to bed thanking God that I’m still alive and still six feet over.”

Eugenia Fregoso lives on the sixth floor of the condominium building.

“I thought that it was normal because there was construction going on all the time, and you hear noises all the time,” Fregoso said. “The noise was very, very loud, and the building shook a little bit.”

One resident said the plane’s impact with the building felt like an earthquake.

FirstService Residential, the property manager for the condominium building, said in a statement:

“We are very thankful for the first responders who arrived on scene so quickly. Everyone on the property at the time was evacuated from the building, and the residents have since been given the all-clear to return to their homes.”

“Well, it’s a good thing that we’re doing construction ’cause the pool is closed,” one resident said. “Otherwise, people would’ve been there, and that’s where the plane hit.”

The National Transportation Safety Board said the banner’s release mechanism was open and the banner was no longer attached.

The yellow banner the plane had in tow was found across the street from the crash scene.

7SkyForce HD hovered over the scene where the wings of the plane could be seen separated from the aircraft and a yellow tarp next to it, covering the body of the pilot.

The aircraft is said to be from the company Aerial Banners Inc., which have their planes flying over Fort Lauderdale Beach and South Beach advertising festivals and events taking place across South Florida.

7News has learned that the FAA has investigated the business before the Friday crash.

7News spoke to Bob Benyo, the owner of the business, over the phone for comment, and he said the business trains the pilots to stay away from populated areas.

“We’re sitting here with the NTSB as I’m speaking to you, and we’re all shaking our heads,” Benyo said. “It just doesn’t make sense. I don’t understand why he turned westbound, or inland, from the beach at such a low altitude. We can’t figure it out.”

Benyo said the pilot was a new hire and had only worked for him for six weeks before the crash. He also said the pilot was commercially trained.

“He’s an experienced pilot, you know, but as far as the banner tow experienced pilot, he’s still new,” Benyo said. “That’s what he was doing today, was actually getting more comfortable. He wasn’t flying a customer’s banner, even. It was just getting more comfortable with flying up and down the beaches.”

The company has seen many crashes in South Florida in the past.

In June 2006, a banner plane crashed at Opa-locka Airport and burst into flames. The pilot was transported in critical condition with serious injuries. The FAA ruled the crash was caused because of pilot error.

In November 2007, another banner plane crash happened at North Perry Airport. The plane nose-dived into the ground after stalling. The pilot was critically injured. The NTSB determined pilot error was to blame for the crash.

The FAA then got involved and revoked Aerial Banners’ waiver to operate. The FAA stated that, from 2005 until 2007, there were two plane crashes with pilot injuries, two hard landings that damaged planes, one pilot ran out of fuel, which forced an emergency landing outside of the airport and found four paperwork violations and safety risks because the planes were modified without proper certification.

However, the company went back into business a short time later.

In March 2014, a banner plane crashed into a Northeast Miami-Dade lake south of North Perry Airport.

In March 2015, a banner plane crashed in West Broward in the Everglades. A rescue helicopter retrieved the pilot, who could be seen walking on the crashed plane’s fuselage, to safety. The pilot was not injured.

“The FAA pulled the waiver from Aerial Banners, Inc. This was operating under Aerial Banners North,” Benyo said. “Granted, they’re both my companies, but two separate entities. Twenty-five years we’re doing this. This is, this is just something that is horrific.”

The NTSB said Friday they will be investigating the crash.

“We’re in the very beginning stage of the investigation,” NTSB investigator Tim Monville. “[The plane] then was observed either by witness accounts making an abrupt right turn flying in a westerly direction towards the building.”

The plane, which could be seen resting on the pool deck of the building, could remain there for several days as the investigation proceeds.

The pilot’s name has not been released.

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