I would like to thank the following people for making possible this blog, and so much more. Without their concerted efforts, I would certainly have died at sea during November of 2003.
Pilots and Crews
The HH-65 “Dolphin” rescue helicopter crew:
- LT Robert Workman – Aircraft Commander
- AST2 Scott Gordon – Rescue Swimmer
- LTJG Steven Charnon – Copilot
- AMT2 Fred Sullivan – Flight Mechanic
The C-130 “Hercules” search and rescue airplane crew:
- LT Clint Trocchio – Aircraft Commander
- LTJG Joshua Fitzgerald – Copilot
- AET2 David J. Bryant – C-130 flight crew
- AMT1 Paul E. Thomas – C-130 flight crew
- AET2 Michael A. Lieberman – C-130 flight crew
- AMT2 David P. Lane – C-130 flight crew
- AMT2 Robert Pitchford – C-130 flight crew
Hawaii Air National Guard F-15 “Eagle” Pilots:
- LTCOL William Ladd – Command Pilot
- MAJ Phillip Rose – Command Pilo
On November 15th, 2003, I tried to fly my experimental plane from Honolulu to San Francisco. I took off in the early evening, just before sunset, and began a long climb to the cruise altitude I hoped to use during the major portion of the trip to the mainland. The plane was a Cozy canard and was built of fiberglass and foam, much as a surfboard is built. (The Rutan brothers reportedly went to Hawaii to learn surfboard making before designing the first Rutan canard airplane, the VariEze, so the fact that a linear descendant had similar design characteristics shouldn’t be a surprise).
Since I had planned on flying through the night at some point on the trip, I’d chosen to take off just before sunset and fly out the night in the early portion of the flight, when the engine hadn’t had time to do anything unfriendly. That plan didn’t work so well. I got about three hours out on my 18 hour flight, when my oil pressure started to fluctuate.
At that moment, I didn’t know if I had a real problem or an instrument malfunction, but since my oil pressure gauge was a primary indicator of engine health, I didn’t give the next step a lot of thought. I turned around, declared an urgent situation (pan pan pan pan pan pan), and began flying back toward the nearest airport, which by then was Kahului, Maui. Five minutes later, the oil pressure stopped fluctuating and dropped to nothing. Forty minutes after that, the engine threw a rod. (When the FAA finally got to inspect the engine several weeks later, it still had oil, so it was a lubricant circulation problem, not a loss of oil). The engine began to vibrate so violently that I shut it down to prevent it from tearing itself off of the airplane. I was committed to landing in the water, almost one hundred nautical miles north of Maui.
I had radioed in my exact position by GPS when the rod failed. I glided down, maneuvering into the wind and turning on my landing lights about a hundred feet above my landing altitude. Normally if you are landing on water, you land parallel to the swell, so you don’t go skipping across waves, which are hard as rocks if you hit them at 80 knots. Unfortunately, the seas, which had been forecast at 3-5 feet, then upgraded to 5-8, were (according to Rob) at about 9 – 26 feet.
There was no discernible swell or trough that I could see. Just very sloppy seas. I continued into the wind and slowed as much as I could. I don’t remember the next minute or so, but I hit hard. I dislocated my left shoulder on impact, and came out of my shoulder harness, bursting my L2 and L5 vertebrae. The canard, a good chunk of the nose, and the canopy broke off as I hit the water. I used my right hand to support my left, grabbed an attached fiberglass shard in front of me, and pulled until the left shoulder popped back into place. That is when my memory snaps back into focus. My hand held marine band radio, which I had put around my neck, was gone. My emergency bag of flares was snagged under the instrument panel, but I had my life raft to hand, in the right seat.
I threw my raft out and inflated it, more or less simultaneously unlatching my seat belt. I climbed into the raft, and laid there for a moment, hurting. I was still attached to the plane by parachute cord attached to my flare bag, which was truly snagged under the instrument panel in the passenger side. As I tried to move in and clear that, shattered fiberglass from the plane popped my raft, with one of those instantaneous deflations that speaks of a several inch hole in the raft.
I swam back into the plane, which continued to float, and activated a hand held Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB). (The marine version of an emergency locater transmitter). I also lit a strobe light, which flashed unnoticed by anyone save me for about forty more minutes.
Eight minutes after I ditched, a pair of F-15s flew overhead and dropped flares. The flares lit up the sea almost like daytime, but the search team missed me. There was an un-forecast scud layer at about 1200 feet, and no horizon below that level. Phil Rose, the F-15 pilot who eventually found me, said it was so dark below that layer that his night vision devices were almost non-functional.
Twenty minutes after I ditched, a USCG C130 Hercules piloted by a friend, LT Clint Trocchio, flew overhead. None of the search aircraft was receiving either of my two emergency locator transmitters, although the rescue coordination center repeatedly assured them that there was an EPIRB. An interesting effect I’d seen on other searches, sometimes the search aircraft doesn’t receive the emergency signal only two or three miles away, while satellites overhead pick it up, no problem. The three aircraft began to fly search patterns about three miles away from where I floated in the cozy, watching them and waving my strobe light.
One of the F-15s broke off because it was low on fuel, but the other pilot decided to stay on scene for a few more minutes. Twenty minutes later, he found me by doing expanding circles. He led the C-130 overhead, and departed, landing on fumes. Phil’s handle is Axl, and in the laundry list of people I owe my life to, he’s first. I owe my life to Axl Rose – now, how many people can say that?
The C-130 called for a helicopter, which had prepositioned from Oahu to Maui and was waiting for that call. Communications difficulties ensued, and it was the best part of three hours before the helicopter was overhead. The crew wasn’t sure I was in the plane, couldn’t see me. Fred Sullivan lowered Scott Gordon into the water with the rescue hoist, and Scott swam over to the floating wreckage. I swam out to meet him, and his first words when he saw me were, “Hell of a way to start your retirement, Mr. Swears.” I knew everybody on both USCG Aircraft, and had been one of Rob Workman’s mentors as he went from Copilot to Aircraft Commander in that unit. Thank God he hadn’t listened to only me: he must have had some good mentors as well.
While I waited for the helicopter to arrive, not knowing if it was really coming, I was fighting shock and in a lot of pain from my back, so I couldn’t maneuver around enough in the cockpit to get to that emergency bag. The cockpit filled with fuel from the two extended range tanks in the back seat, so I sat in a mix of AVGAS and salt water for three hours awaiting rescue. (I spent two weeks in white muslin bandages, having them peeled off twice daily and receiving a coat of silver sulfadiazine for the chemical burns. My outer layer of skin sloughed off and regrew during that period, postponing the spinal fusion surgery).
For three hours, I prayed pretty steadily. Not so much to live as to be able to be a good dad to my four year old daughter and unborn son.
My name is William. My father’s name is William. As I floated in dark so complete that I could see the planes circling three miles away, and stars above, but not my hand in front of my face, and as my body temperature dropped to an estimated 89 degrees, just barely conscious, I had a feeling I had an angel sitting on my shoulder.
I’m a Protestant. I’m not supposed to believe in patron saints and guardian angels. My wife believes that I was talking to the baby who would be born three months later. I know that I was talking to an angel, though I knew absolutely nothing about what he might be patron of. When I saw my six month pregnant wife two days later, I asked her if we could name our son Michael.