Thursday, October 11, 2012, a floatplane capsizes in Glen Lake, New York. The two pilots that were in the aircraft escaped without injury. The local emergency services were activated. After ensuring the safety of the pilots, a volunteer dive team decided that they would flip the aircraft back over. After attempting unsuccessfully for many hours, in front of local TV crews and newsmen, the decision was made to drill holes in the forward air chamber in the pontoons. The assumption was that it would give enough negative buoyancy allowing them to up-right the aircraft. You guessed it; the floatplane sank to the bottom.
It seems that whenever there is an accident requiring an underwater recovery every person whoever dipped their toe in the water is now a “recovery expert”. From Dock Builders, Contractors, Recreational Divers, Plumbers, Marina personnel, and part-time Fire & Police Dive Teams, everyone becomes a master. Underwater recoveries require a very specialized, highly trained team. It takes proper equipment to get the job done safely and proficiently.
That evening at approximately 18:30 hours, I was contacted by the local Sheriff’s Department. I was asked to assemble our professional recovery team and recover the aircraft the following day. It was requested we be on-site at 08:00 hours. I attempted to gather information regarding the aircraft from the officer. He eventually had me speak to a family friend of the floatplanes owner. Information was a little vague due to the high stress level from the events that day. I was also informed that the aircraft was in 30’+ of water and it was upside down.
I have many professional divers on staff that I utilize for recoveries. When it comes to FAA, NTSB or other government agencies that may be investigating the accident; I have a select group of specialists. My first call was to Kurt Riley, my primary diver. Kurt works as my full-time equipment technician and sales person. He is the “Mr. Gadget” of the scuba industry. This guy can fix anything. Kurt and I just click when we’re working underwater. We’re on the same thought wave and our number one priority is always safety for the dive team. Recoveries go very smoothly with Kurt and me underwater. Kurt’s dad is an aircraft mechanic and Kurt grew up around planes. Next I phoned Marty Bedell. Marty is our IT guy and a “Jack of All Trades”. He seems to know a little bit about everything. Marty is a back-up Diver and manages everything topside. He’s hard working, organized, and the kind of guy I need for recovery jobs. The final call went out to Ed “Fast Eddie” Miron. Ed and I have been friends for years. He works for a robotics company as their Northeast Regional Sales Manager. He’s also a professional diver. Ed too is a back-up Diver and mainly works topside with Marty organizing and handing recovery equipment to the divers. The topside team members have to anticipate the divers needs and be ready to act in a moment’s notice.
The team was in place and I had a 05:00 briefing scheduled at the Dive Center. It was time for me to get to work and research the aircraft. It’s now 19:45 hours and I’m still not certain what type of aircraft we’re recovering. I know it’s a Cessna, possibly a 172, 180, 182, or maybe even a 206. I needed to know size, weights, approximate displacements, type of pontoons, wing and pontoon volumes, rigging points, area hazards, etc. This information will allow me to plan a more effective recovery. We pride ourselves in not doing any additional damage to the aircraft, vehicle, or vessel we’re hired to recover. I have authored programs for the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) in underwater crime scene investigation, photographing potential evidence, evidence recovery, victim recovery, vehicle / vessel / aircraft recoveries to name a few. We’ve worked on a lot of “high profile” recoveries over the years and I know the value of documentation, photos, video, and preservation of evidence. We treat every recovery as a potential crime scene.
I decide to concentrate on the Cessna 172, 180 and 182. I spend hours researching the information that I need. It’s now 22:45 hours and want to spend a little time preparing for tomorrows briefing. I make the necessary copies to hand out to the team and start to mentally rehearse the equipment needs and the procedures we’ll use to recover the aircraft.
Friday, October 12th 05:00. The team is in the classroom awaiting the briefing. I hand out photos of the Cessna’s and statistics on the aircrafts. On the front dry board is a drawing of a Cessna 182 upside down to simulate what we’re expecting. We discuss safety equipment, underwater recovery equipment, and surface equipment. We look at possible rigging points, stress factors, weight distribution, and access panels. We formulate a recovery plan; discuss packing and loading equipment so that the equipment needed first is packed last. Then we formulate a contingency plan. When we think we have it all figured out, we take a step back and discuss and plan for the worst case scenario.
06:10 hours; we start to pack and load the trailers and boat. Every piece of equipment is checked and double checked. The team makes certain that no equipment needed for this recovery is left behind. The one advantage regarding this accident is the lake’s only 15 minutes from the Dive Center. If need be, I can always have someone bring additional equipment. My team is used to being far from home for recoveries and they realize the importance of having the necessary recovery gear.
07:30 hours and we make a final check. We’re good to go. Not certain how long our day will be we stop for donuts, bagels, and beverages.
08:00 hours, we pull into the parking lot of the Docksider Restaurant located on Glen Lake. The aircraft supposedly is located off the front of their property a few hundred yards out. As the team exits from the vehicles three gentlemen approach us. It’s the owner of the aircraft, the other pilot who was in the plane, and a family friend. Introductions were made and we start to discuss the misfortunes of the prior day. It’s difficult when I see bad things happen to good people. After speaking with the owner and seeing the stress in his face, hear the sadness in his voice, and witness the tear in his eye, I could tell that this plane was “his baby”. He doesn’t know me or my team. He’s not aware of our qualifications or expertise and he’s frightened that we’re going to ruin his aircraft. I asked to speak to him alone in the cab of my truck. Once in the truck I again expressed my condolences and explained that I would do everything humanly possible to take care of his aircraft. I have a standard form that I fill out for recoveries. Once that form was done we then discussed the plane. It’s a 1977 Cessna 180K. I think he was surprised when I pulled out a diagram and specifications for that type of aircraft. It’s all about the professionalism, showing him that I took time to research his aircraft and was sincerely concerned about his loss. He and I discussed the recovery plan step-by-step. I shared with him information regarding the specialized equipment we’re going to use, rigging points, photography, etc. I explained that we would first locate the aircraft and attach a marker buoy and dive flag. Watching from shore he would then see me and Kurt enter the water with a lot of photography equipment. I told him this was going to take some time because we photograph every inch of the plane. We would then return to shore and discuss our findings. The longer we talked the more at ease he became. He had suggestions for additional rigging points and discussed all the access panels under the wings with me. Together, we fine-tuned the recovery plan. While the owner and I were discussing the aircraft, my team had been very busy unloading equipment, launching our boat, and preparing for the recovery.