Pilot David Zehntner was flying his personal plane from his vacation home in Franklin, N.C., back to his main residence in LaBelle, Fla., when he flew over his Florida home while approaching the airport and saw something unusual.
“We have a place in Franklin, N.C., and fly back and forth,” Zehntner told ABCNews.com. “We were returning from Christmas in North Carolina, and returning to our main home in Florida. Every time we fly in, which we do quite a bit, the approach pattern to land in LaBelle goes over our home. We always make a low altitude circle over our property.
“At about 800 feet, we fly over our house. We look out and say, ‘There’s a truck in our driveway. So I literally drop down to 300 feet, that’s extremely low. I’m circling and watching the guy walking around and looking in our windows and testing the doors to see if he could get in.”
About the fourth time Zehntner circled above his house, he noticed the thief look directly up at his plane, a Cessna 182 Skylane. But the man, despite the aircraft being right overhead, still attached Zehntner’s small utility trailer to his hitch and take off with it.
Zehntner knew there was absolutely no way the thief could get away since he was watching his every move from overhead.
“I still had three hours left of fuel. My wife kept saying, ‘Land on the road.’ And I said ‘No, we’ve got to do this right. So I got on my plane radio and tried to contact the LaBelle airport and I couldn’t get in touch with them. Then my wife tried to use her cell phone but the plane was so loud you couldn’t hear,” he explained.
“We followed him for seven miles circling him,” Zehntner said. “He kept driving right into the middle of LaBelle where you get on highway 80. At one point, he was sitting stopped at a red light right in front of the Henry County police station. I’m in the air circling wishing I could tell them to run outside.”
When Zehntner saw the man turn to get on highway 80, he knew he had the perfect opportunity to finally nab the thief.
“I landed the plane at the airport, about three miles away, and called the dispatcher and explained the situation,” he said.
The runaway trailer was located by authorities who stopped the robber on I-75.
Gary Robert Haines, 59, of Stafford, Va., was arrested and charged with grand theft, police said. By then, Zehntner had come to the scene to get his trailer back.
“It was quite an experience. Not sure it’s something I’d want to do every day, but the outcome is pleasing. It was worth it,” Zehntner said.
Police found a loaded rifle and bullets inside of Haines’ pickup truck.
“There were loaded guns in the front, several loaded rifles, a handgun. The police wanted me to look through that. They were not mine,” explained Zehntner.
Haines was taken to Charlotte County jail and released on Monday on $2,500 bond. Authorities are still investigating the theft and the weapons that were found in the pickup.
ABC News’ Eliza Murphy contributed to this report.