Honolulu Center Iím 200 Feet And Ditching! by Bob Justman
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The terrible storms of the past week were over, the turbulent waves of the ocean had subsided, and the skies were blue once again. I had completed the pre-flight and run-up and was taxing down the runway in the red an white plane with the checkered tail. The RV-8 sounded great! It was going to be a very good day. I looked forward to getting over to Kauai. My wife, Honey, had been there for a week keeping a bedside watch over her critically ill grandmother, Sarah, whom she adored. Sarah was a well known chanter and "living treasure of Kauai." We were told that she did not have much time left and we both wanted to be there for her.
Honey patiently waited at the Lihue Air Terminal for me. There was no Bob at 9 a.m., and no Bob at 9:30 a.m. She called my son, "When did your father leave the house? "Dane cheerfully replied. "Yeah mom, dad left over an hour ago." "O.K., "she thought, "maybe he just started talking with some of his buddies at the airport." The minutes ticked by. It was now 10 a.m. and Honey continued to wait until the police officer approached the car and asked, "Are you Mrs. Justman? Your husbandís plane went down."
"My survival gear had disappeared by this time. Surfacing near the tail of the aircraft I was amazed to hear sound, the lapping of the waves against the side of the aircraft."
Meanwhile a totally different scenario was unfolding 24 miles off of Kauai. All of a sudden the RVís engine lost power. It continued to run but at a very low power setting. I immediately started to go through my single engine emergency procedures. I didnít know how much time I had. Descending out of 4,500 feet I notified Honolulu Center that I had an emergency and would be ditching. Center replied, "Squawk 1701 and Ident. "I tried everything I could think of to regain power. Nothing worked. At 1,000 feet MSL I turned the aircraft into the southerly winds, tightened my seat belt and shoulder harness and opened the canopy. I grabbed my floatation device and portable ELT and set them in my lap. After I lowered my flaps and trimmed full-up elevator I notified Center at 200 ft that I was ditching now! At about 60 miles an hour the plane made explosive contact with the water. The aircraft flipped nosedown. I felt a twisting sensation and the plane came to rest at a 45 degree angle to the surface. The cockpit was full of water because the windshield had shattered upon impact. I had no idea how far underwater I was. Still belted to the aircraft and holding what little breath I had left I tried to open the canopy which had slammed shut trapping me underwater. I kept trying to pry it open and somehow was finally able to shove it back, unbuckled my seat belt, and ejected myself from the cockpit. My survival gear had disappeared by this time. Surfacing near the tail of the aircraft I was amazed to hear sound, the lapping of the waves against the side of the aircraft. There had been no sound underwater. I glanced at my watch it was 9 a.m. my estimated time of arrival at Lihue terminal. Within minutes the airplane made a popping sound and then plummeted toward the bottom of the ocean floor. I assessed the situation and said to myself, "Bob, youíve gone and done it now. No floatation device, no ELT, and dark blue clothes----perfect camouflage for a pilot lost at sea." However, Coast Guard training always emphasizes positive thinking for survival. I began to look around for any floating wreckage to make myself more visible. Locating pieces of white fiber glass from the wheel fairings I turned my back to the waves and prepared to wait for at least an hour or more before I could hope for a rescue or search aircraft to arrive. The water was about 76 degrees. I relaxed to save energy in order to stay afloat for a long period of time. I knew that the ocean could be an unforgiving adversary. I was alone in the middle of the Kauai Channel well known for its deep and seemingly endless underwater trenches. There was no land in any direction. I watched as Hawaiianís Boeing 717 descended on their approach to Lihue. I spotted a tug towing a barge to the East of my position and hoped they would pass by me. I realized that the barge was getting smaller and moving away. It was at that moment that I realized that I was but a mere spec in the universe. At 9:40 I heard the sound of a helicopter, but couldnít see it. Seconds later the Coast Guard helicopter was approaching from the East. I waved the fiber glass pieces in the air. The helicopter flew by, and I wasnít sure if they had seen me. They had, but needed to jettison fuel in order to bring another person on board. As the helicopter returned I decided to splash my arms and legs to make sure that they had seen me. The helicopter descended to hover above the water and fountains of water erupted around me. I began to swim toward the helicopter but Ronny German, the rescue swimmer, signaled me to stop. Slipping into the water he swam toward me, held up his hand once again and told me to relax. Grabbing me from behind he slipped his arm in front of my shoulder and towed me to the rescue basket. I was hoisted aboard the helicopter. It was a good feeling to be airborne again.
No one wants to experience a scenario such as this. However, it can be a powerful tool by which to pass on useful information to other pilots who may one day find themselves in similar circumstances. It is imperative to monitor Honolulu Center while in route. Declare the emergency and squawk 7700 with them immediately so that they can track your movements on radar. They were able to track me to 100 feet. Wear all survival equipment including a personal ELT. You will never have the time to put these on in a situation like this. All of oneís energy and actions will be directed towards the emergency situation. I cannot stress enough the value of survival training especially the water evacuation simulation that is taught every year by the Coast Guard. If you are underwater things have a different appearance.. It is dark and hazy and one can be easily disoriented. In my case the release for my seat belt had moved position and was not where I expected it to be. One can loose precious time and air when this happens underwater. The initial impact of the airplane hitting the water is horrific----like slamming into a cement wall, and I recommend having the canopy shut. The canopy took the brunt of the impact which I credit to my survival, and is a testament to the structural integrity of the Vanís design.
Bob Justman - pearlpacific at juno.com