BARTOW (FOX 13) - A pair of Polk County Mosquito Control pilots turned into first responders when they heard another pilot's mayday call and then rescued him from his crashed plane.
Nick Harboe and "Pepper" Keller said they were buzzing around the county Monday, spraying for invasive plants. In an instant, their mission changed.
"We had heard a frantic 'mayday,'" Harboe said. "It went, 'mayday, mayday, mayday,' and then, silence."
"From the tone of the voice, from the 'mayday mayday mayday,' we knew that pilot was desperate," Keller said.
The pilots volunteered to search the area around Bartow Municipal Airport, scared of what they might find.
"The reality that we could have just heard somebody's last words, you know, that's a terrible accident," Harboe said.
At first, there was no sight of the wreckage and they were about to turn back. Then, they couldn't believe their eyes.
It was a twin-engine Cessna downed in a marshy area, east of Lake Hancock.
"As we flew over the aircraft, the pilot in the downed aircraft was out on what remained of the wing and was waving us down," Harboe said.
The 62-year-old pilot, James Melton had cuts on his head and bruises on his neck and chest, but miraculously, he was standing. He was alive.
"He went from being nice and comfy in his airplane, to not knowing whether he was going to get out of a marsh, to knowing he had just escaped death," Keller said.
Keller and Harboe flew the injured pilot to the airport, where he was treated by Aeromed staff and put in an ambulance.
Melton later told FOX 13 News, he was still trying to piece together what happened. He knew the plane was going down and tried to put it in a place it could land. Though he and his plane are banged up, he's thankful it didn't end as badly as it could have.
"It's an old pilot adage. Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing," Keller said. "Airplanes can be replaced. Lives can't."
Melton is resting in Bartow for now, waiting for his wife to arrive and drive him back home to Kentucky. He was spending some time in Polk County doing aerial photography.
Melton said he's extremely grateful for all the people who heard is call for help and got him to safety.