Allow me to apologize for this article's ambivalent title, but first let me tell you the story of how I went from cruising on autopilot at 11,000 feet while eating a bag of M&Ms to treading water in the shark infested Gulf of Mexico all in a matter of 3 minutes.
I am an ATP rated pilot and use my aircraft extensively for business and personal transportation. On 20 September 2012, I had planned on flying from my home in Houston, Texas to Sarasota, Florida for some meetings. When I lined my Beechcraft Baron up on runway 14 at Houston's Baytown Airport and pushed the throttles forward for takeoff, I had no idea that this flight would not terminate with a landing in Florida.
In all my hours in the left seat, I’ve had two 'official' emergencies and several non-emergency 'events'. I’d seen smoke in the cockpit twice, both small puffs that quickly went away. Once from an old comm radio, which I quickly shut off, and another time from an alternator that went out. Both were non-events, but to which I responded quickly. So when I saw smoke starting to come up from behind the panel in my Baron on this fateful flight across the Gulf, I reacted immediately, slapping the Master off. Unfortunately, the amount of smoke increased exponentially and immediately. My passenger yelled 'Flames!' just seconds after the first sign of smoke. I pulled the throttles to idle and put the airplane into a steep dive. I couldn't see the airspeed indicator, but I am sure my 4+G pullout 50-100 feet above the water was initiated well past Vne. It was getting quite warm, and it was clear that there were no other options. Maybe I would rip the wings off, but that was a chance I was willing to take when the alternative was burning to death.
When we hit the water, the windscreen was already half melted. I had popped the door and storm window open, which really helped to suck out most of the smoke. I could breathe, but not see very well. I tightened my and my passenger's seat belts in the dive and hoped for the best. It certainly wasn't my smoothest landing, but we stayed right-side-up and on the same heading we touched the water on. The airplane immediately began to fill with water. By the time we came to a stop, the water was already up to our seat bottoms. I took off my passenger's seat belt and pushed him out of the plane. I was right behind him. The door had flown off during our landing, so this helped make egress easier. Now standing out on the wing in knee-deep water, I looked into the plane to grab my emergency kit and PFD's. I also saw my iPad and prescription sunglasses, which had flown off my face. I quickly grabbed everything I could get at. The airplane sank fully within 90 seconds. As far off shore as we were, the Gulf water is crystal clear. I watched the airplane sink in 3,000 feet of water. It got smaller and smaller until it disappeared into the darkness below.
I checked my passenger for any injuries — he was fine, as was I. I knew that since we were on an IFR flight plan ATC knew where we were. I had also activated my recently installed 406 beacon in the dive which had it's own GPS. On top of that, I had a SPOT in my emergency bag. Unfortunately, I was not wearing my Breitling Emergency on this day.
In the dive, I noticed a large motor yacht below, so I aimed to put the airplane down close. Not close enough to put them in any danger, but certainly close enough for them to see. After all, how often is it that an airplane with a major fire, trailing smoke, goes down in front of you in the middle of an ocean? After egress, I was imaging the fastest rescue in the history of ditchings. We splashed and waved as much as we could, but this yacht motored right past us. My heart sank ... but I had to stay calm for my passenger. I explained to him that we had 3 separate systems to locate us: our last position on radar; the ELT in the aircraft; and the SPOT in my emergency kit.
Hour One went by without any sign of another human. The Gulf is a very big and lonely place, and when you are treading water in the middle of it, you realize just how small you are. Hour Two went by. Still nothing. It was around that time, I noticed that I was clutching my iPad. I used my iPad not only for all my aeronautical charts, but also my marine charts. I had previously lived aboard a sailboat and almost made it around the world — for this reason, my iPad was in a LifeProof waterproof case. I booted up the iPad and it still worked even after the landing and being exposed to salt water for that long. I pulled up my charts and the GPS locked onto our position. Of course, this would be useless information to anyone but us. Still, being the nerd that I am, I was able to calculate our set and drift. I determined that at our present speed and heading, in 26 days we would make landfall in Havana, Cuba! I took some pictures, made a short video, and tried to talk my friend into playing the Monopoly app with me to pass the time.
Shortly into Hour Three, a US CBP airplane flew overhead. Instantly recognizing the color scheme, I shouted to my friend, 'They’re here! We’re rescued!' We grabbed each other and shook hands in a moment of relief. However, this moment would be short lived. The aircraft flew over the top of us and then disappeared, occasionally re-appearing off in the distance some time later. A USCG helicopter showed up 20 minutes later and did the same thing. They flew right over the top of us and disappeared. It was clear that they could not locate us. Every time they made a pass nearby we would splash in the water and wave our arms, but they never saw us. During one low pass I seemed to make eye contact with the swimmer hanging out of the open door. I could see the color of his eyes...but he never saw me. I watched the sun getting closer and closer to the horizon; knowing that if we were not spotted and picked up within the next 20–30 minutes that we would likely be staying the night, bobbing out in the middle of the Gulf. I also knew that meant our chances of survival would go way down. They had to spot us. The just had to.
Finally on their final pass, they did. The pilot flashed the landing lights at me as they got into position to drop the basket. The USCG did an excellent job on the pickup. It was the swimmer's first water rescue and they were as excited about it as we were. Later, over a pizza- and some well deserved Jaegermeister shots on Bourbon Street — they told me that they had expected to find either nothing or a couple of bodies floating.
So, what can we learn from this incident? It is with near absolute certainty that the Janitrol heater started this intense fire. I had the nose baggage area stuffed with 4 large bags, mostly clothes. It is obvious that somehow this stuff started on fire. I also, like most twin drivers, would store oil and cleaning supplies in this area. I sold my life raft when I moved to a twin, but honestly, it would’ve been very unlikely for me to have been able to get it out of the plane. The SAR center never received a hit of my fancy 406 GPS ELT in the aircraft. The USCG helicopter was searching for a 121.5 beacon. Had I been wearing my Breitling Emergency, we would have been located and picked up about one hour sooner — I don't plan on wrecking any more airplanes, but I won't climb into one unless it is on my wrist. The lesson here is to be as prepared as realistically possible for every flight you take. The USCG commander attributed our survival to being well prepared. He added that if you are forced to ditch an aircraft, we did it ‘right.’ I would like to add further, that we all have to remember that while we are in the left seat, we are PIC. It is important to keep flying the airplane and working through an emergency. Sometimes we can’t choose the cards we are dealt, but we certainly can control how we play our hand. I personally attribute our survival to decisive action. Okay, and perhaps a little bit of luck.