Ditching a Cherokee off Hawaii

During my first winter in Hawaii, soon after I arrived in what was to become my permanent residence, I was flying a rented aircraft between the islands on my job as director for University of Hawaii Peace Corps training, when my USAF flight training surely saved my life.

It was 7 am Sunday morning, December 15, 1968, in Honolulu. I was at Island Flight Service on the east ramp of Honolulu International Airport, and the twin-engine Piper Comanche I had arranged to rent failed to show up. The Comanche owner had called the Island Flight Service dispatcher earlier Sunday morning from Kauai to announce he would not return to Honolulu until sometime after noon, delaying my planned takeoff.

I needed to reach Hilo to meet, brief, and accompany an evaluation team from Washington, DC. I planned to meet the evaluators in Hilo, where they expected me to arrive at or before 9 am. I planned to fly the team to Upolu Point and Kona airfields, near two ongoing training programs.

Due to the delay, I seriously considered booking Aloha or Hawaiian airlines to Hilo but doing so would have left me without an aircraft to carry our visitors to two distant Big Island training sites.

The only aircraft available that morning was a single-engine, four-seat PA-28 Piper Cherokee, which I failed to fully and properly preflight. I departed Honolulu for Hilo shortly after 9 am.

My delayed takeoff caused me to neglect performing a number of pre-flight duties I normally and faithfully accomplished, including checking the aircraft logbooks which were kept in the Island Flight dispatch office.

As I climbed across Sand Island after my tardy lift off, I reached under the aircraft seat for a life-preserver, and found there was none. I loosened my seatbelt to look in the back seat and baggage compartment but I found no life preservers or survival gear.

I did not even consider continuing the flight without survival equipment, and called Honolulu Departure Control to ask for permission to return to land. The controller said, “Roger that. Is there a problem?”

Cherokee
The Cherokee is (usually) the perfect airplane for hopping between islands in Hawaii.

I replied, “No mechanical problem. I forgot my over-water survival equipment and want to return to Island Flight operations to get them.”

With my return to HNL approved, I landed and requested the Island Flight dispatcher to bring me four life preservers. I checked each for fresh CO2 cartridges, donned one life preserver, and relaunched from Honolulu International to resume my solo flight to Hilo.

Fifteen minutes after my second departure, I noted a drop in the Piper’s oil pressure. I advised Honolulu Control I wished to land at Lanai Airport for a precautionary check of my oil quantity, as the Island Flight dispatcher had given me two quarts of oil, “just in case you need it.” I landed at Lanai and taxied to the airport ramp, shut down, got out, opened the left engine cowling, and checked the oil quantity, which was low. I added a quart, and took off a third time for Hilo.

Forty minutes later, flying southward down the Hamakua coast toward Hilo, and abeam Pepeekeo, I noticed a slow, uncommanded drop in the Piper’s engine RPM. Switching fuel tanks, I applied carburetor heat but failed to correct the gradual loss of power. Then, suddenly the engine stopped, ten miles short of my destination and nearly two miles offshore.

I immediately turned right, toward the Hamakua coast and a distant crop duster airfield in a sugar cane field I knew near Pepeekeo, and again attempted an engine restart.

It quickly became obvious the engine would not restart. It also became obvious that if I tried to stretch my glide I would not reach the crop duster landing strip. I was forced to elect to ditch in the sea, upwind, short of shore, and into large waves.

Realizing I faced ditching in an unfriendly rough sea, I broadcast “Mayday,” alerting Hilo approach control that I was about to ditch along the Hamakua shore, approximately one mile offshore from Pepeekeo Plantation, into waves which appeared to be several feet high.

I asked Hilo for an estimate of the winds. Hilo Approach said winds were estimated at 30 knots from the north-northeast. I turned into the wind, opened the Piper’s single door on the starboard side, blocking it open with my leather-bound Jeppesen chart book. I aimed to touch down along the approaching crest of an incoming wave, upon which I intended to dead stick the Piper. I tried again to restart the engine, without success.

Applying full flaps, I tightened my seat belt and prepared to ditch. I would enter the sea at 55 knots indicated airspeed but actually at only 25 knots if Hilo’s estimate of prevailing winds was correct.

At the last moment a gust of wind carried me into a less desirable approach, above a trough between two large waves, with crests both right and left, several feet above my cockpit.

The Piper PA-28 aircraft with fixed tricycle gear was not my choice of preferred aircraft design for ditching but nose gear-first it would be. I was aware that when the nose gear struck a wave, I would be pitched nose-down and underwater. I recalled US Air Force water survival training in Germany and at Long Beach, practicing ditching procedures.

Hilo airport
When the engine quits within sight of the destination airport, it’s hard to resist the temptation to stretch a glide.

The anticipated high impact worried me because the aircraft had only a single seat belt and no shoulder harness. I was holding the microphone in my left hand to give a final Mayday call and flying the aircraft with my right hand, while working the rudder pedals to guide the Piper down the center of the trough between the waves. My right wingtip caught the oncoming wave, cartwheeling me to the right, and in an instant I was under water.

Holding my breath, it was suddenly quiet as the Cherokee sank deeper into the darkening sea. My ears told me I was 8-to-12 feet below the surface and going deeper.

Instantly, I was looking down on myself in the cockpit, with my seatbelt still fastened. I thought in a flash I would go to the bottom if I failed to release my seatbelt. I heard me chide myself for just sitting there: “Open your seatbelt, dummy!” I opened my seatbelt and instantly I popped upward into a pocket of air in the rear baggage area of the Piper. I took in a big lungful.

My feet, luckily, were placed against the right rear window of the aircraft, just above the waterline in a pocket of rapidly escaping air. I broke the window with a mighty shove, cutting my ankles on the sharp plexiglass. I was dismayed to see a blurry red miasma of my blood as sea water rushed into the tail cone of the Piper.

Holding a mighty lungful of air from the darkened cargo compartment behind the Piper’s back seats, I pulled myself around and started headfirst through the window, only to discover that I was hung up. My life-preserver had caught on the edge of plexiglass. Avoiding a puncture of my life-preserver on the sharp plexiglas, I pulled myself back into the cabin. Still holding my breath, I felt the Cherokee’s right exit door, held open by my leather-covered instrument manual, where I had propped it when the engine quit. I pushed the door wide and pulled myself through the open door, free of the sinking aircraft, and swam for the surface. I saw my Jepp chart manual sinking clear toward the sea bottom.

I remember swimming over the right wing, noting a dented leading edge wingtip as I swam upwards, nearly out of the longest breath of my life.

I had managed to leave the aircraft via the only door. I was fully conscious the whole time. I recall being concerned about the dented wing but realized that it didn’t matter. The Cherokee was headed to the bottom. Nevertheless, I regretted damaging the aircraft.

Things slowed down. Now, I was free of a sinking aircraft at the surface filled with blowing foam by strong winds.

As I inflated one bladder of my double bladder life vest, I surveyed a half-mile swim in turbulent seas to reach dry land.

Shark
Just because you survived a ditching doesn’t mean the danger is over.

I was aware of the imminent danger of sharks because I had been strongly admonished by one of our Hawaiian training staff members, who said in no uncertain terms that we must keep trainees and staff out of swimming and diving along the Hamakua Coast. He warned me about recent sightings of sharks, including great whites in local waters. He said, “You haole guy one little appetizer for a great white.”

Accordingly, I had circulated a written warning to the Peace Corps training classes and staff about these hazards, and so I issued a “no swimming” edict on the whole Hamakua coast.

Now, here I was, somewhere offshore the Pepeekeo Sugar Mill, swimming with bleeding ankles and wrists, after instructing everyone else to stay out of Hamakua waters. I think I chuckled at the irony.

As the airplane was sinking and I watched the empennage slowly go under water, hissing as the air that had enabled me to live came rushing out of the fuselage, it occurred to me that my briefcase was still in the aircraft, heading for the bottom of the sea, 6,000 feet below.

Clear of my dying airplane, and at the stormy surface, many thoughts raced through my mind. I briefly considered and rejected retrieving my briefcase, a relic of previous Peace Corps travel in the Philippines, which contained important university documents. Removing my life preserver to dive back into a sinking aircraft, however, was a foolhardy notion, which I rejected.

About half an hour later, and still a hundred yards short of land, I noticed a Coast Guard search and rescue Lockheed C-130 from Barbers Point circling about 3,000 feet above me. I learned later they had received word that I survived the ditching and was observed on the surface, swimming toward the shore. The USCG search and rescue center in Honolulu was contacted by a fisherman who had witnessed my ditching. However, the pilot of the C-130, whom I visited at his Barbers Point headquarters several days later, said none of the SAR crew had seen me, due to the turbulent seas.

Luckily, I never saw a great white nor any other sharks.

I swam hard for shore, determined to leave the water as quickly as possible. I watched the huge waves run up a 50-foot, rough, lava ‘A‘ā pali, frothing almost to the peak, then receding, in a rush of white water. My desperate plan was to ride a comber up the pali and grasp whatever I was able to grab as the wave receded, likely leaving me on the sharp ‘A‘ā lava, injured, but hopefully, saved from the cruel sea.

As I contemplated what I knew was my desperate plan, I spied a fisherman with a fishing pole on the Pepeekeo shore. He wore a yellow slicker. I waved to him and, to my great relief, he waved back, warning me with hand signals away from the treacherous pali toward which I was swimming. The man saw I was headed for the pali and vigorously waved me off.

That fisherman saved my life by indicating where I should not go, beckoning me to swim back out to sea, southward toward Onomea Bay. I really didn’t want to stay in the ocean as a possible snack for a great white shark but this man’s signals saved my life.

Waves off Hawaii
The beach is beautiful, but many parts are quite dangerous for a swimmer.

I had kept my flying boots on to risk the pali ‘A‘ā but abandoning that high-risk plan, I kicked off my flying boots, which I still regret losing.

I was in fine shape but was swallowing a large quantity of seawater in the foam, and realized that I was still bleeding. I had probably ripped open some veins in my wrist and didn’t know what I had done to my ankles.

I was swimming in high, wind-driven waves as I assessed my condition. I had partially inflated my life vest, using only one of the two CO-2 bottles, the same bottles I luckily had checked before my second takeoff from Honolulu.

As the Coast Guard Search and Rescue (SAR) C-130 circled overhead, I waved, hoping they would see me. They continued to circle and I knew they would drop a life raft if they saw me, but no life raft appeared.

I urgently wished to get out of the water before a big fish found me.

Later, I talked with the commander of the Coast Guard SAR C-130 which circled me, and he said they never saw me. The ocean surface was a sea of foam. Nonetheless, I knew that help was on the way. It was just a matter of time; if the big fishes didn’t turn me into a protein snack first, I was certain that I would be saved.

I was hyperventilating, swimming hard to leave a shorebreak that seemed to carry me closer to the ragged ‘A‘ā lava. I turned over on my back and back-paddled. I still wore my USAF flight jacket, which made swimming difficult, and slowed me down. So, I slipped out of my flight jacket without removing my Mae West, which was a complicated maneuver. It grieved me to lose that USAF flight jacket with my 452nd Troop Carrier Wing ID tag, but I had no choice.

I was still in the water, worried about a great white shark which had been reported nearby, when I saw what I hoped was the mast of a ship. Watching intently, I saw that it was indeed a mast, and it was moving northward, disappearing and reappearing, going southward, back and forth, two or more miles offshore but slowly coming closer. It appeared to be doing a creeping search right off shore where I was last seen and I said to myself, “Ahah, this ship is going to find me.” I had no signal device and no way of contacting the Coast Guard cutter but if he continued a creeping search course along the coast, he was likely to spot me.

Eventually, the Coast Guard cutter’s crew saw me wave and came alongside, throwing a friendly net over the rail. The man who pulled me in was the commanding officer of the 95-footer, a young Coast Guard officer named Lieutenant John Milbrand. The cutter was based in Hilo. Due to the urgency of my distress call on a Sunday morning, the ship was manned by only three out of a normal crew of ten. Lt. Milbrand’s wife Tina, I learned many years later, was a dear friend of my deceased wife, Gail Moffat Hudson.

Lt. Milbrand pulled me aboard, and said he was glad to find me. I assured him I felt the same, and vomited what felt like a gallon of seawater over the side of the rescue vessel. Then I had a cup of strong Coast Guard coffee and felt safe from the Great Whites, at last. I was in the water for about two hours.

Paper headline
If you’re going to make the news for a plane crash, better to be alive to read it.

I was taken ashore at Hilo Bay and met by Walt Southward, Honolulu Advertiser Big Island bureau, whom I knew. Walt interviewed me briefly. His report became a six-column headline and photo of “Dripping Olsen” on Monday’s Honolulu Advertiser, with my rescue details.

Taken by an emergency vehicle to the Hilo Hospital, I was examined by our Peace Corps Training Center physician and friend, whose name I cannot recall, found nothing but a few cuts that had stopped bleeding, and a large bump on my left forehead where I hit a crossbar in the cockpit when I cartwheeled into the sea.

I was an overnight guest of Alan and Patricia White, Hilo residents. Alan was director of the Peace Corps Training Center in Hilo.

I deeply regretted losing the Piper, the only aircraft I lost in nearly 12,000 hours of flying.

Later, I investigated the logbooks of Piper Cherokee 140 N4698R at Air Service Corp. and discovered that the aircraft had been involved in a training incident with a student pilot a week or ten days earlier. The student made a poorly controlled landing, collapsing the nose gear, which caused the engine to experience a sudden stoppage when the propeller struck the ground.

I learned from the aircraft owner’s insurance company that their investigation found that the airplane had been restricted to flying locally and should never have been released to fly off Oahu Island.

I didn’t wish to act upon my losses but I obtained a letter from the aircraft owner, Mr. Vetousek, in which he admitted the aircraft I ditched enroute to Hilo was restricted to local flying on Oahu, and should not have been dispatched for inter-island flight by Island Air Corporation.

I learned that the fisherman who waved me off the pali was Matsuichi Heya. I drove to his house near Pepeekeo Mill the next day. Mr. Heya explained that the reason he waved me off from trying to ride a wave up the pali was because, in 1944, he saw a U.S. Navy pilot ditch in almost the same area I ditched. Like me, the pilot survived his ditching, and swam to where I had headed. Sadly, he died on the rocks. Mr. Heya said he didn’t want me to do the same.

I thanked him for saving my life, shook his hand and hugged him, a gesture which at first was alien to Mr. Heya but which he returned with a hug to me.

8 Comments

  • You no doubt saved yourself from the get go, this was probably one of the scariest flying stories I have read in a long time ……… The flight school should have been severely punished for allowing the aircraft to be rented out and the mere idea that after a landing accident it would be allowed to fly in local area is without question foolhardy and fateful.
    I would hope that anyone reading your account here will not take for granted the condition of any aircraft new or old prior to flight.

  • Phil,
    This kind of hair-raising story highlights the reason I bought my own airplane soon after getting my license. The ragged Musketeers and 172s available to rent were often festooned with “inop” notes, and concerned me and my wife about undisclosed mistreatment they might have suffered from the last flight. I never regretted having control of every aspect of my plane’s care and maintenance. Thanks for sharing the many lessons from your experience.

  • Hi Phil,
    Fascinating but scary story of your time in the water. Glad that you got out safely. All the best to you.

    BTW
    I am the guy who delivered the Alex&Baldwin Citation II to you guys from Cessna back in the 80s. A fascinating trip in it own right. Hope all is still well with you.

  • Quite a chilling account, thanks Phil! I too fly rented Cherokee’s and have always wondered about their behavior should they end up in the water. In my imagination, I see it floating serenely on top as I casually climb out onto the wing. Clearly not the case! Thank you for sharing, great lessons for all.

  • Ditching in any aircraft has to be a real eye-opening event. All of my flight instruction was in a nicely maintained Cherokee 140. I found it to be a pleasant flyer, but can’t imagine landing in light surf let alone in heavy stuff. With that stuff wind at least your ground speed was lessened, but those big waves didn’t help. I suspect that very few aircraft float for long unless they’re designed for that. Glad you went back for the life preserver otherwise we wouldn’t be reading this story firsthand. That flight school should have never had that aircraft available. Thanks for sharing! Just curious, what would you have done differently if you had known of the recent damage history of that plane? I bet the airline would have been more appealing.

  • Wonderful share! It shows what is possible as a backup when properly trained, as you were. Again, great story … and a great learning experience for all of us.

    As the saying goes, I need to learn from others, as I don’t have time (or lives) to make all the mistakes myself. Thanks again. -Ron

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *