Steve Miller met his younger brother Ken and mutual friend Bob Rauber at St. Petersburg Clearwater International Airport (PIE) for a late afternoon fishing hole hunt. It was a nice sunny January day to fly, clear VFR weather. Ensuring his two passengers were safely secured in their seat belts and should harnesses, Miller received taxi clearance to runway 35R. After an uneventful run-up, Miller switched to tower frequency and, at a few minutes past 5:00 pm, received take off clearance.
Pulling out onto the runway, Miller pushed the throttle in to the stop and checked to make sure all the gauges were in the green as the Mooney 205 (N205MD) accelerated down the runway. With slight backpressure on the yoke, the Mooney lifted off and the three were on their way. Given the purpose of the trip, Miller didn't want to climb any higher than necessary, so he leveled off at 1000 ft., pulling power back to 24 squared as he turned south towards the Gulf of Mexico, following the coastline of Old Tampa Bay.
Glancing at the oil pressure gauge a few minutes later, Miller noticed the oil pressure had dropped. Within seconds the engine started to knock. Miller immediately notified the tower that he was turning back towards the airport, "I thought I might make it back" Miller recalled. Reducing power to reduce stress on the ailing engine, suddenly the plane began to shake violently and the prop began to overspeed as the oil pressure failed completely. Miller recalled, "it was shaking so bad I couldn't see the instrument panel, it was just a blur. My hand on the controls was a blur. It blew up big time"
Miller turned back away from the heavily built up area beneath him, back towards the Bay, "I thought the engine was going to rip off the airframe, it was shaking so violently. I put it into a slip to quickly get as close to the water as possible, because I didn't think the engine was going to stay in the airframe. There are only four little 1/4-20 bolts that hold the engine frame to the firewall. If it came off, I knew we were goners."
Descending rapidly towards the rolling green water of Old Tampa Bay, Miller swiftly prepared for the ditching as best he could, fighting to control the injured Mooney. "I radioed the tower I was going down," the last radio transmission he would make. He reached across Ken with his right hand and unlatched the door, to be sure they wouldn't be trapped. Ken and Bob, completely unprepared, could do nothing, their fate entirely in Miller's hands.
Nearing the water, Miller hit the flap switch for full flaps and tried to slow down as best he could. Slowed to the edge of the stall, with the stall horn sounding, Miller impacted the water. Hitting the top of the three foot swells, the Mooney skipped once, then again across the tops of the swells. The last impact "hit really hard and the right fuel tank just exploded as we hit the wave. It just burst and then the airplane turned about 60 degrees to the right and submarined."
The windshield went completely under water and then they bobbed back to the surface. The force of the impact had also ripped open the belly of the Mooney and water was pouring in, "we were sitting in the water which was up to the seats." Ken was frantically trying to get out, but his seat belt was still fastened. Miller remembers, "he was just panicking, so I reached over and released his seat belt for him." Free, Ken clamored out of the airplane and stood on the right wing.
Miller then started out himself, but not realizing the fuel tank had burst, he stepped into the gaping jagged hole in the wing, plunging down into the water. Ken grabbed his brother and helped him up, Meanwhile, Bob climbed out from the rear seat, then around Miller to exit, turning then to assist Miller onto the wing. As the Mooney's nose started to settle in the water, Bob and Ken jumped into the cold, 54 degree water.
Standing on the wing walk, Miller quickly opened the baggage compartment door and grabbed the three marine style life vests, throwing them to the two in the water. He then grabbed the remaining inflatable airline vest, ripping open the bag and inflating it before throwing to Ken who was already struggling. Reaching further in, he retrieved his Winslow life raft, clearing the opening just as the Mooney plunged straight down under water, the tail nearly hitting Miller in the head as it went down, leaving Miller treading water and hanging on to the life raft. It had been less than 45 seconds, Miller estimated, since the Mooney came to a stop in the water.
Meanwhile, Bob was in big trouble. An accomplished body builder, his bulky muscles and lack of fat were now a severe handicap. Despite having a life vest under each arm, Bob was having difficulty keeping his head above water. Miller recalls, "The water was freezing cold and the waves were breaking over Bob's head, he's not a good swimmer and was sinking, so I knew, if we didn't get the life raft open, it didn't look good."
Pulling on the life raft's mooring line, Miller was stunned when the end came loose from the valise and the raft didn't inflate. Miller mused, "over the years the line must have come loose from the ring. I ripped the cover open, found the ring and pulled it . . . then the life raft inflated very rapidly." All three quickly pulled themselves into the raft.
While the raft got them out of the frigid waters, the brisk wind and cold water made for an uncomfortable situation. Ken's back and the seat of his pants, and part of Bob's shirt were soaked in gasoline which came in through the open door when the fuel tank burst. Miller remembers, "We were really cold and surprisingly, it took a long time for someone to come for us. We were just sitting there in the raft waiting, complaining about the cold, about how cold we were. We figured a helicopter would be there any minute, we weren't very far from the airport, but nothing happened!" They could see spectators on the bridge ½ mile away, where their ditching had caused traffic to come to a halt, as well as on the shore, about two miles away, but no rescue.
Half an hour later, they were still waiting when they finally saw some rescue efforts getting under way on the shore. However, before the would be rescuers could commence their operation, a small 13 ft. outboard fishing boat pulled up, directed their way by the spectators on the bridge. The family on board didn't even realize it had been a ditching, they thought a boat had gone down. The three climbed gratefully into the small boat and were taken directly to the waiting emergency crews on shore who wrapped the shivering survivors in blankets. The most serious injuries were Ken's and Bob's gasoline burns, but Ken also sustained a head injury and all three survivors suffered whiplash injuries.
The Winslow life raft, nearly as big as the boat which saved them, was left in the water. A week later the U.S. Coast Guard called to tell Miller they had retrieved the life raft and he was welcome to come pick it up. Another Mooney, a PFM model this time, replaced the Mooney lost in Old Tampa Bay, but the fully refurbished, updated and restocked Winslow life raft is once again in Miller's Mooney, in case it is ever needed again.
Reflecting upon his ditching experience, Miller concluded, "if (pilots) think they are going to save themselves by treading water, swimming or just floating in a life vest until someone comes and gets them, they are fools. It's bad enough in the water in warm conditions, worrying about what might nibble at your feet, but if the water is that cold, you just can't imagine how cold you get. You just have to get out of the water. It's bad enough out of the water in a life raft, in the water is totally unbearable. The Winslow life raft did its job and if we'd had to stay out overnight we would have survived -- without the raft we wouldn't be here."
Miller made a few potentially serious mistakes during his short flight, but in the end, having the forethought to carry survival equipment on board the Mooney and some fine flying balanced them out -- that, and some luck, which it never hurts to have.
One key advantage Miller had was that he had already thought about the possibilities ahead of time and made his decision. Miller commented, "always thought that if I had to pick a spot, the water would be better than trees or a busy street. . . one of the reasons I got the raft, plus I frequently fly to the Bahamas, Keys, Cayman Islands and Mexico. It was rush hour, so I didn't even think about trying to put it down on Gandy Bridge." Sometimes the water is the safest place to put it down, especially if you are prepared. In urban areas, a body of water may well be the only good option. Sound decisions, made in advance of an emergency, save vital seconds when they really count.
Miller had also come to grips with losing the aircraft in the event of an off airport landing, another very important point. He took to heart the advice he recalled reading, "always remember the insurance company owns your airplane, don't take any unnecessary risks." Many survivable emergencies have turned sour because of unneeded efforts to save the aircraft. Your primary objective is to save yourself, almost everything else is unimportant. Again, recognizing this ahead of time can save valuable time in an emergency, and prevent you from doing something stupid.
Miller did miss a few opportunities to prepare himself and his passengers ahead of time. A safety briefing to passengers is just as important in light aircraft as it is for the airlines, if not more so. Miller recalled, "I always figured I'd do that at the last minute, if I had to." As he discovered, there may not be time to do it once the emergency is under way. Passengers should always be briefed on how to exit the aircraft in an emergency and where any emergency or survival equipment is located. Depending upon the experience of the passengers, it may be appropriate to assign other emergency duties as well. Some light plane pilots follow the example of the airlines and offer their passengers an emergency briefing card, saving them the awkwardness of doing it themselves. If Bob had been properly briefed, he could have taken the life vests and life raft out with him, so Miller would not have had to retrieve them after exiting.
Miller also committed an all too common error by storing the life vests and life raft in the baggage compartment. If the plane is full, there may be no other choice. More often, the seats are not full and this survival equipment can be made much more accessible. The life raft should have been strapped into the rear seat next to Bob. Bob should have been instructed to take it with him when exiting. Alternatively, Miller would have been able to reach back and grab it on his way out. As much as possible, you want to preclude having to go back into the aircraft for anything. Miller very nearly didn't get the life raft out in time and was nearly knocked unconscious in the process. The closer to hand emergency equipment is, the more likely it will go out the door with you.
Life vests should always be worn when flying over water, such as Miller was planning on doing that late afternoon. There is often not enough time to get the vest out, unpack it and don it within the close confines of a small aircraft cabin. This is an even bigger problem for the pilot who has to keep flying the aircraft during this critical period. Miller learned his lesson, "I bought the pouch style vests that you wear around your waist and can don almost instantly."
Marine vests are not the best choice for aircraft use. Generally, they are uncomfortable to wear all the time and they usually don't provide as good floatation as do double cell aircraft life vests. In the event the aircraft goes under water, the floatation of the marine vest can make getting out even more difficult. It should be noted that standard airline style vests are not designed for constant wear. Buy and wear a life vest designed to be worn all the time, either a pouch style or a more sophisticated (and expensive) vest style.
The failure of the inflation line is not surprising. Miller had never had the raft serviced in the four years he owned it. The previous owner only had it serviced once in the prior six years, and then not by the factory. It is testimony to the inherent quality of the life raft that it still inflated properly once he found the inflation ring to pull, despite the abuse and lack of proper care. Any life raft should be serviced at least bi-annually at a minimum (the manufacturers recommend every year) and it should be done only by a qualified service center. A raft is a significant investment, even the less expensive ones. Why spend all that money on safety and then not ensure it will work when needed? Life vests should also be serviced bi-annually, at a minimum.
Miller chose to use full flaps to get the Mooney as slow as possible for his water landing. While this is a good strategy for land, it is the wrong choice for a forced water landing in a low wing aircraft. Full flaps pose two significant potential problems. First, they might be ripped off by the impact, opening the wing to flooding and reducing the time the aircraft stays afloat. If only one is ripped off, the aircraft can spin or cartwheel. Second, if the flaps do not come off, then there is a greater tendency for the aircraft to nose down into the water, often with greater force than otherwise, possibly caving in the windshield and flooding the cabin. In Miller's case, they may also have contributed to the failure of the fuel tank, trapping water under the wing and creating greater pressure than would normally have occurred. At most, only partial flaps should be used with a low wing aircraft. Note that this is not the case with high wing aircraft which can safely use full flaps, though care should be taken to check first if full flaps will block an emergency exit, a problem with some high wing aircraft.
Miller made the correct decision to open the cabin door before impact. This is critical to prevent it from being jammed shut, trapping the occupants. If time allows, it is best to block the door with something, a pilot's handbook or charts for example, to prevent the door from inadvertently slamming shut on impact and jamming. A timely exit from the ditched aircraft is essential for survival.
Miller was lucky to have not locked the baggage compartment door, as many pilots do, or he might never have retrieved his survival equipment. If you do not have to lock this access door, don't. In some aircraft the locked latch makes it more difficult to use the baggage compartment door as an emergency exit. Care must be taken however, to be sure the latch is fail-safe and well maintained, so it cannot inadvertently open in the air.
Even in Florida the water can get cold in the winter months. Cold water is deadly. Miller remembers, "that same week a Police helicopter went down and they didn't survive and two fishermen who were firemen were lost when their boat overturned and they got hypothermia and were lost also." Using the U.S. Air Force Survival Training Manual and the USCG's Search and Rescue Manual Hypothermia Charts as a guide, a person in 50 degree (F) water would be expected to survive for only one to three hours and maintain consciousness for far less time. Attempts to swim to shore would hasten the onset of hypothermia and death. A raft is the best defense against hypothermia.
Miller's four person life raft was not equipped with a canopy. A canopy is critical to maintaining body temperature once the survivors are out of the water. With no protection, the brisk breeze combined with wet clothes created a serious wind chill that Miller noted, "chilled us to the bone, it was really cold and we were shivering bad."
While this ditching occurred within sight of land, it could have easily turned into a disaster if Miller had not been carrying the life raft. Pilots should not over-estimate the capabilities of survivors to make it to shore. A half mile in cold water could be a death sentence to many.
The lessened learned from this survival experience follow closely the recommendations found here on Equipped To Survive. For additional information related to this subject follow these links:
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