The saddest flight I ever made

The story begins about 6 am on a Monday in San Francisco in the late 1990s. We lived close to the Presidio, and each morning, I would run our dog from the St. Francis Yacht Club out to the Golden Gate Bridge and back. This morning I saw a number of flyers posted asking for help locating a lost windsurfer. The previous weekend had been exceptionally windy and if a windsurfer was lost, his prospects weren’t good.

I called the number on the flyer, learned that the windsurfer, a young man aged 28, had gone missing Friday afternoon, and that Coast Guard helicopters searched Saturday and Sunday but had given up. My Cherokee Six was at the Oakland airport so I volunteered to fly his father and uncle around the Bay, thinking maybe the body might have washed up against the shore.

San Francisco airspace
Complicated airspace to be flying around low and slow.

We met at the airport and I called the Oakland tower to explain what we were doing. I told them we wanted to fly the perimeter of San Francisco Bay at about 200 ft., just offshore, and look for the missing surfer. I asked them to pass along the request to the other Bay and tower controllers because everywhere we were going we would be intruding into someone’s airspace.

The boy had been surfing out of Coyote Point, about five miles south of SFO, on Friday afternoon. Winds had been 40-45 mph, enough to make a windsurfer fairly scream along, and at the end of the day when all the other surfers gave it up, his vehicle was the only one left in the parking lot.

We figured a body would have been unlikely to drift north into San Pablo Bay so that left the area from the Bay Bridge south, around the bottom of the Bay, and up to San Francisco proper. Seven towered airports lie along that route including three international facilities–Oakland, San Jose, and SFO–and at least 80 miles of shoreline.

So off we went, father in the right seat, uncle in back, 30 degrees of flaps to slow the airplane down to 70 knots and keep us level, no more than 200 ft. of altitude, maybe 200 yards offshore. First we went north as far as the east end of the Bay Bridge, then turned south, back to Oakland and around the perimeter of Oakland International, threaded between incoming and outgoing flights. On we went: Hayward, San Jose International, Moffett, Palo Alto, San Carlos, and incredibly, around the perimeter of SFO squeezed between commercial flights landing and taking off. Each controller was gracious and helpful. They must have passed the word among themselves because no one questioned what we were doing or objected that we were violating their airspace.

We turned back at Candlestick Point, figuring if the body had drifted north it would have gone under the San Francisco piers and we wouldn’t see it anyway. When we got to SFO again, they cleared us directly over the airport terminal. I always wondered what the folks in the terminal thought about the nut in the little airplane buzzing the place.

Just south of the Dumbarton Bridge, the father saw a flash of bright purple, the same color as his son’s wetsuit, in the marsh grass. We landed at Palo Alto and found a helpful guy with a pickup truck to haul us as close as we could get to where the color was seen. From there we hiked a mile or so through the marsh to the spot, where the father waded out and found his son’s body.

We called the Palo Alto fire department who arrived quickly and retrieved the body. The boy had a broken neck and probably died instantly when he hit the water.

We returned to Palo Alto and flew to Oakland. When we touched down, all I could think was, “There are no good landings today.” It was the saddest flight I ever made.

4 Comments

  • I know the feeling, which I’ve had more than once. It’s pretty deflating. The only way I know to get it behind you (not over it, because that doesn’t happen) is to recognize that you helped a grieving family toward acceptance of their family member’s death. How much more difficult that would have been, if he had not been found.

    One particular experience sticks in my mind. I volunteered to fly a sheriff’s deputy out of Laramie to attempt to locate a lost hunter, who was supposed to be somewhere south of the Snowy Range west of Laramie. He was a foreign national, on a temporary work visa. His wife and children had moved to Laramie with him. His co-workers had introduced him to the sport of hunting, and he had fallen in love with the serenity of the mountains. But he had been somehow separated from his friends, and they were worried.

    Visibility was marginal, but both the deputy and I knew the area well, and although we were flying relatively low, we were being careful. We knew the general area the hunter was supposed to be in. Suddenly the deputy spotted tracks leading to an area of trees. We couldn’t see through the trees, so the deputy called the ground party on his radio, and we circled over the spot until they arrived. The hunter had apparently panicked when he became disoriented, had wandered in circles, and had stripped down to his underwear; he froze to death.

    As we flew back to Laramie in silence, all I could think was, “This was a lousy day to fly.”

  • Alaska’s outback pilots can tell no end of such stories. Fortunately, most seem to have a happier end. Many do not . . . . . As with the author of this tale, any pilot involved in such a search carries the sad memories with him to the end of his days.

  • Jim, I can see your point.

    But what a gift you gave to this grieving father!

    To know that your loved one is adrift like so much trash… The pain can not be put into words.

    You helped him bring his son’s remains to a clean, dry place to prepare for his final rest. Sad, yes but priceless to his family.

    I have always said the view from the Presidio rivals only Lake Tahoe as the most beautiful place I have ever seen. I’ll remember your story the next time I am there.

  • I fly with a Law Enforcement Reserve Unit in a metropolitan area, and in over 1100 flight missions, I have seen quite a few things that I wish I could erase from my memory banks. It is a reserve unit, so I don’t get paid- I keep doing it because it helps the families to gain closure, and in my case, helps the good guys to put a few bad guys behind bars. Even though it’s tough at times, keep helping people. Even if they can’t say it properly at the moment, they appreciate your efforts.

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