The pilot flying stunts in a homebuilt plane had become a regular fixture off the coast of Pasco County near Brasher Park.
Michael and Lisa McGraw, retirees who live not far from the park, would go out to their dock whenever they heard the distinctive sound of the plane, which usually showed up about once every two weeks.
As they watched today, though, something seemed different. The pilot was "whipping the plane really good," Michael McGraw said, and the plane dipped low on some of the loops.
Then suddenly, as the McGraws watched in dismay, the plane's engine seemed to stall and the plane didn't come out of a final loop.
"The sound was horrendous when he hit the water," Michael McGraw said.
The pilot, John Paul Donnenfield, 33, of 10228 Beechcraft St. in the Hidden Lakes subdivision of New Port Richey, was killed in the crash, which was reported about 12:10 p.m., the Port Richey Police Department reported.
"It's very sad," Port Richey officer Gerard Decanio said at the scene Monday afternoon. The plane crashed approximately 200 yards off the coast of Brasher Park in about 4 feet of water, police said.
Donnenfield's mother-in-law, father-in-law and a young child were watching from shore at the park, Decanio said.
Donnenfield had taken off in a single-engine Pitt acrobatic plane from his home in the Hidden Lakes subdivision, Decanio said.
"We've seen him over this area prior, doing his practice sessions over the gulf, which is the safe thing to do," Decanio said. "Thank goodness he did" because nobody else got hurt in the plane crash.
"I have several witnesses that all say he had done a few of his maneuvers and that at the last maneuver he came down pretty close to the water. And as he pulled up, … the plane stalled. I don't know if it was mechanical failure or pilot error."
Inspectors from the National Safety Transportation Board are scheduled to examine the wreckage Tuesday morning, Decanio said. The plane's debris will remain in the Gulf until NTSB examines it.
The McGraws said they didn't know Donnenfield, but they had come to enjoy the private air shows he performed about a quarter-mile from where they live and within a clear line of sight.
"It's a sad day for everyone along the coast who sits out and watches him," Michael McGraw said. "I know lots do. He was a hell of a pilot, I know that."