08:30 hours, Sheriff Detectives arrive to discuss the recovery procedures and estimated time frame. My team gears-up and we head out to look for the aircraft. We locate a small marker buoy left by the fire department the night before. It’s approximately 250 yards from shore. It was a cold, windy morning and as Kurt and I prepare for the dive, Marty pilots the boat keeping us over the dive site. Once in the water, Ed handed down the photography equipment. Looking through our masks from the surface we spotted the tail section of the aircraft. The plane was upside down on a 70 degree angle. Kurt and I did one last pre-dive safety check before descending.
We started with the tail and Kurt began photographing while I inspected the aircraft. I pointed to areas I felt needed a little more attention. As we continued downward we encountered a lot of line left over from the recovery attempt the day before. This line would have to be removed to protect Kurt and me from a possible entanglement hazard. Upon reaching the bottom at 28’ we noticed the composition was six feet of gelatinous mud. The nose of the aircraft was buried in this black swill up to the cockpit. This prevented us from inspecting and photographing the engine and propeller. While Kurt continued to photograph the plane I surfaced. Ed handed me a five gallon bucket and various screw drivers. I descended and began removing access panels from the fuselage bottom and underside of the wings. All the panels and hardware were put into the bucket to keep them from getting lost. Being a “plane” guy, (I worked for TWA then Lockheed Aircraft in the 70’s to early 80’s), I realize that losing even the smallest parts can be costly. Removing these access panels would allow for water drainage from the aircraft. Eliminating the water weight will reduce the probability of structural damage. Failure to allow for drainage can severely damage the frame, break wings, and crush landing gear and pontoons. Kurt and I finished roughly the same time. We did one last inspection to check and ensure there was no fuel or oil leaking from the aircraft. Satisfied with our mission, we ascended.
Marty and Ed were there to assist us, first with the photography equipment and the bucket of access panels and hardware. We then handed them our weight belts and finally our scuba units. We work out of an 18’ Commercial Achilles Inflatable Boat with inflatable keel. The inflatable keel lets us get into very shallow water. These boats are amazing. For an 18’ vessel it can hold up to 5000lbs of weight and remain extremely stable. Kurt and I then kicked up into the boat. We discussed our findings with the crew and headed back to shore.
The Cessna’s owner was anxiously awaiting information regarding his craft along with the Detectives from the Sheriff’s department and a representative from the Department of Environmental Conservation. I briefed everyone on our findings and we made minor changes to our initial recovery plan to accommodate our recent discovery. Next we began to select and load the recovery equipment. Not counting trucks, trailers, and the boat, we brought approximately $60,000 of recovery equipment to the scene. Most people don’t have a clue how much preliminary work and equipment investment that’s involved when we arrive on scene.
Once the team had the boat loaded we made a final equipment check. The wind was blowing hard and the conditions were worsening. We cast off and Marty piloted us directly above the aircraft. Kurt and I entered the water. Marty was fighting the strong wind while Ed handed the first recovery bag and hardware to us. This aircraft has a tail stinger. The rear wheel landing gear was removed and an eye bolt was installed for tie-downs. This was a perfect attachment point for our first air bag. I attached a 2500lb lift bag to the stinger using a locking carabineer. The process of recovering a vehicle, vessel, or floatplane is slow and methodical. Spectators are expecting the plane to come right to the surface and be floating. It just doesn’t work that way. The air bags will come to the surface but the aircraft is still underwater. The expertise is getting it above the water with little or no additional damage. After attaching the first air bag, Kurt inspected my rigging and the locking carabineer. We double check everything we do. We then concentrated on cutting away and collecting all the line that was left on the aircraft from the day before. This will reduce entanglement hazards that Kurt and I could encounter. Once the Cessna was free of line we signaled the topside team and began to slowly inflate the stinger air bag. The stricken 180K began to move slowly toward the surface. I control the air flow rate underwater while paying close attention to the ascent rate. The air bag broke the surface of the water and the spectators on shore began to get restless. I finished filling the air bag to capacity to ensure it would remain on the surface. The Cessna is now vertical, nose down in the water.