Cirrus in the Water: Here’s What Happened
July 3, 2005
Thanks for the huge outpouring of support, good wishes and prayers from my friends. I was deeply touched by everyone’s sentiments, whether from reading the COPA website, listening to voice mails or reading emails. I will try to answer each person individually, but please understand if I don’t.
I am writing to answer the common questions on everyone’s mind and to attempt to organize my own thoughts and emotions after having gone through a very traumatic ordeal.
Many lessons can be learned from my experience of surviving an airplane crash, including:
Don’t trust anything the news media publishes. Various inaccurate and misleading reports had me: inexplicably parachuting out of a plane that already had its own parachute; losing control in a dive; coming dangerously close to a nuclear reactor; and activating the chute because of mechanical problems. None of these is true.
Practice, practice and more practice. Maneuvers like recovery from unusual attitudes, deploying the parachute, shutting down the plane after any emergency, should be instinctive. Quite simply, when things go awry there’s no time to consult a checklist or the pilot’s operating handbook (POH). While in retrospect I didn’t do everything right, I did get all of the important stuff right.
Don’t fly a single engine plane that isn’t equipped with a parachute. Although the chances of actually encountering an emergency situation that is worthy of “pulling the chute” are probably small to infinitesimal over the course of any given pilot’s career, the penalty for not having a parachute is almost certain death. Each pilot has to establish and evaluate their own risk assessment criteria, but for me something that has a greater than 50% risk of death, even if only 1% of the time, is an unacceptable risk. That’s why I bought a Cirrus in the first place.
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Before I describe in minute detail what happened, here’s a brief summary. On the afternoon of Thursday, June 30 I was incapacitated by a short seizure while being vectored for an instrument approach. When I became alert again, the plane was descending at 204 knots, which is faster than redline speed. Following normal procedure I was able to recover from this unusual attitude; an instant later I chose to activate the parachute. On the descent, I steered the plane clear of a fuel tank farm, and crash-landed into the water near Haverstraw, NY.
My injuries are more severe than the “cuts on the hand” described in the press. First, my back was broken by the impact of crashing into the water. Thankfully I retain full body function and have every reason to expect a complete recovery after wearing a brace for the next month. Second, I have a benign brain tumor, which has been growing undetected in the middle of my brain for many years and was apparently the cause of the brief seizure in-flight. Thankfully the tumor does not affect my mental facilities in any way, and the risk of future seizures is now being controlled by medication. In the coming weeks I will be discussing treatment options with various specialists: these include surgery or doing nothing. In either event, it is fairly certain that my flying days are over.
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Now for the details..
I departed Lincoln Park, NJ at approximately 4:20 pm. My plane was there for two weeks for its regular 50 hour inspection and an assortment of squawks, including new spark plugs after 400 hours, replacement of the broken shear coupling on Alt 2, cosmetic work on the leading edges and wheel pants, and a new fuel sender unit and gauge. The last item required emptying the tanks and then refilling them so that the new fuel gauge could be properly calibrated. This exercise introduces air into the fuel lines, so we spent a lot of time running the engine on the ground to ensure that all the air was gone.
The destination was my home base at Westchester County Airport, NY (HPN): 35 miles and 12 minutes as the SR22 crow flies. Notwithstanding the short distance, I filed an IFR flight plan because the weather was hazy and the weather forecast for HPN was predicting temporary cloud buildups starting at 2,000 feet. As I climbed through 800 feet I contacted NY air traffic control and picked up my clearance: V39 BREZY intersection, Carmel VOR, direct; 3,000 feet. In quick succession I was handed off to the next controller, and coming up at BREZY intersection I was told to expect the ILS 16 approach at HPN. After BREZY intersection I was handed off again, and that controller started to give me vectors for the final approach course: fly a heading of 080 degrees and maintain 3,000 feet. A few moments later I was instructed to turn an additional 20 degrees to the left and maintain 3,000 feet. Incidentally, the visibility in the air was only 2-5 miles, so the decision to file IFR was certainly prudent.
As I came out of the turn to 060 degrees, I noted that my altitude had slipped to 2,840 feet while I was busy changing frequencies, turning and loading the approach procedure into the Garmin. Apparently the plane was not trimmed properly, and I concentrated on climbing back up to 3,000 feet, while continuing my scan and noting that everything was running just fine. Indicated airspeed was 160 knots, which is normal for the cruise power setting then in use. Then I blacked out for a period that I now estimate as being 10-20 seconds.
When I became alert again, I scanned the instruments and was stunned to see the airspeed indicator showing 204 knots indicated; the attitude indicator showing the nose below the horizon; and the altimeter scrolling down quickly toward 1,900 feet. I also realized that my right leg was weak, and that the controller was calling, asking what happened to my altitude. For non-pilots, the redline threshold is also known as the “never exceed” speed, because the airframe was not designed to retain structural integrity above that number. In other words, the wings can break off at any moment.
Adrenaline shot through my body as I quickly and methodically executed the procedure for recovering from this unusual attitude: level the wings, decrease power, and carefully lift the nose to avoid any further stresses on the airframe. While accomplishing this I concentrated almost entirely on the attitude indicator, and after a few seconds I was satisfied that the loss of altitude had been reversed at roughly 1,500 feet above the ground. I did not see the airspeed, although I knew instinctively that it was out of the red zone. After a fraction of a second of thought, I then activated the parachute. The factors that led me to this decision included: no desire to proceed any further into marginal weather; concern over the loss of altitude; concern that the plane’s structural integrity was compromised by the high speed descent and recovery; and concern that the weakness in my right leg might hinder my ability to control the plane down to the runway.
My parachute experience was quite different from what fellow COPA member Bill Graham described last month at M3. I heard the rocket launch and briefly smelled its fumes. A few seconds later I heard a loud, ripping sound as the parachute reached full deployment. I then felt a tremendous jolt—worse than any turbulence that I’ve experienced—as the parachute billowed open and caused the plane to decelerate. The POH advises 130 knots indicated as the highest deployment speed for the parachute; but I have no idea what the airspeed was in my situation. I suspect it was somewhere above 130 knots based on the very different experiences that Bill and I had.
This jolt tilted the airplane downward as the parachute established a level position; it also threw my headphone and glasses in various directions, and caused my head to hit the ceiling near the visor. I have a very small bump to show for it; but that was the only injury from the parachute deployment. In my opinion the seatbelt retraction system and the parachute worked exceptionally well under the circumstances.
After finding the headphone and realizing that the plane was now level at roughly 900 feet above the ground and descending straight down under the canopy, the first thing I did was call the controller on the existing frequency: I had no time to switch to 121.5; and saw no point in doing so since the controller was already urgently asking what was going on. I said “Mayday, mayday, 52 Lima here, pulled the parachute near the Hudson River.” I believe that the second thing I did was punch in 7700 on the transponder, although I later learned that my plane was already below radar coverage. Inexplicably, I did not pull the mixture back to idle, as advised by the POH, and left the power lever just below the detent (roughly 19 inches MP). In the next minute this would prove to be an invaluable deviation from what the POH requires.
I looked out the window and saw that the plane was descending directly over a fuel tank farm for the nearby conventional power station (incidentally, Indian Point, which is a nuclear reactor, is located on the other side of the river, 5-8 miles upstream, and away from the vectors for the ILS 16 approach course). This was now the scariest part of the flight: worse than emerging from a seizure to find the plane in a high-speed descent, because I already knew from training how to handle that situation. But there is no advice in the POH on how to control the plane once the parachute has been deployed.
Now everything happened at warp speed. I called the controller again and said “Mayday, 52 Lima is descending directly over the fuel tanks”. No response; and besides, there was nothing the controller could do to help me. I then used “all available resources” to change that outcome: I applied right aileron and rudder, and rocked the power lever to make sure that the engine still had power. These actions caused the plane to gently veer away from the tank farm and over the water: Bowline Creek, a very wide, calm tributary to the Hudson River near the town of Haverstraw, NY, a few miles north of Nyack and the Tappan Zee Bridge.
An instant later the plane crashed straight down into the water, which both then and now I consider to be the lesser of two evils. It was like a massive belly flop. This was now the second, scary part of the flight, as water splashed up almost to the top of the windows. Because I landed in water rather than solid ground, the gear did not absorb much of the impact. Instead, the wings and seat did all the work. It was at this point that the first lumbar vertebrae in my back cracked and compressed from the impact of the crash.
Then came the very worst part: I could not open the door. The wings were now sitting right at water level, which leads me to theorize that the doorframe or pins were deformed by the impact of the crash. And upon impact, water immediately came into the cabin; in the three seconds it took me to realize that the door wasn’t going to open, the water level was up to my ankles. More adrenaline shot through my body. I reached for the hammer in the armrest compartment, and with two hands swung at the pilot’s window. Two whacks with all my strength and there was an eight inch hole. Steam was now coming out of the engine as the nosecone dipped underwater and the cabin tilted forward, so I now remembered to shut down all the switches and turn the fuel selector to off. I ripped the lap board off my leg, reached behind my seat and grabbed one of the two life jackets that’s always there. I then clawed apart most of the rest of the window glass (which gave me some cuts and splinters) until the hole was big enough, and climbed out of the cabin. The wings were now slightly under water; I sat down to put on and inflate the lifejacket.
I sat on the wing for a minute to survey the situation and collect my thoughts. The closest point to shore was roughly 300 feet away, near the power plant. Several people were already assembled there at a boat launch, and I spotted a police car already driving in that direction. The parachute was flat on the water, mostly on the other side of the plane. I slipped into the water and began swimming to shore. My leg got caught on something: no doubt a line from the parachute. I kicked it free and swam faster and farther away from the plane. Within four minutes of impact, the plane was nose down in the water and sank in 30 feet of water. No fuel leaked out of the plane. In the next ten minutes I kept swimming slowly, but stopped after roughly 150 feet. There was pain in my back and some blood on my left hand. I was getting cold. A Haverstraw Fire Department launch appeared about half a mile away, where the tributary joins the Hudson River. They came up beside me and sloppily pulled me onboard. The pain in my back was now considerable, so I lay down flat across the deck. A moment later the boat docked near the power plant, where an ambulance was waiting to take me to Nyack Hospital.
Enroute to the hospital, a police detective sat next to me and took sparse notes of my story. The EMT folks stuck me full of needles for IV and blood tests; my body temperature was 90 degrees, so they wrapped me in more blankets. I felt a hot spot on my rear end; it turned out to be the battery from my cell phone that was overheating from being underwater. We arrived at the hospital and I was wheeled into the trauma part of the emergency room. They immediately cut off all my clothes (losing my keys in the process), poked more needles into me and did a quick check of my limbs and abdomen. I was then sent for a CT scan of my neck and brain; and later for X-rays of the rest of my body.
When all the test results were in, the ER doctor came in and told me that my back was broken, and that the orthopedist would be there shortly to explain further. He then left the room, but came back a moment later and casually said: “By the way, did you know that you have a brain tumor? The neurologist will be here soon to explain it some more”.
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I walked out of the hospital on Friday afternoon. My back still hurts, mostly from the pressure of the brace that I have to wear for the next four weeks whenever I’m vertical. I’m taking anti-seizure and pain medications and next week will consult with neurosurgeons on what (if anything) to do about the brain tumor.
Last night was the first time I was able to sleep through the night without waking up several times, sometimes in a sweat; other times just to cry for ten minutes because I couldn’t deal with the emotions of how and why I nearly died, yet somehow managed to survive.
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Unlike other people’s descriptions throughout history of near-death experiences, I did not see my life flash before my eyes; a warm glowing light; or any symbols of divine presence. What I saw were stark realities that needed to be dealt with: airspeed, jolts, altitude, fuel farm tanks, water, pain.
When the plane crashed and the cabin was underwater, and I couldn’t open the door, I sadly thought: “So this is how it ends”. But I immediately determined to reject that outcome, grabbed the hammer and clawed my way out.