Next, Kurt and I descended to inspect the nose section of the aircraft. It was free from the gooey muck. There was a small dent on the portside engine cowl. Other than the nose section being caked with mud, it appeared in good condition. We then utilized the (4) eye bolts on the top of the wings, just above the fuselage, to attach the next two bags. These bags are VRS2000 or Vehicle Recovery System bags each having 2000lbs of lifting capabilities. A lot of the rigging hardware is built into these bags to allow for rapid deployment. We have used these bags on many vehicle recoveries over the years but one drawback is that the lifting rings and straps need to stay in-line. Any sideward tension could result in severe damage to the bags and possible injury to the divers. The eye bolts on the aircraft lined-up perfectly with the VRS2000 air bags. We also checked to make certain we wouldn’t damage the aircraft antennas when the bags were inflated. Everything looked good. The bags were connected with carabineers and we were ready to start raising this plane. I ascended to inform Marty and Ed we were ready. It’s their job to quickly respond with additional equipment should we have a problem. They are also responsible for keeping the area free of any boat traffic to ensure a safe lift.
Kurt and I discuss the lift and airflow rates. We want this plane to surface very slowly putting very little pressure on the wings and allowing for slow water drainage. Kurt is on one side of the plane and I’m on the other. When rigging the bags it’s important to keep in mind the position of the tank used to fill the bags and the ball-valve for deflating the bags. Once inflated, the hardware on the bags need to be facing outward toward the divers, not inward preventing the divers from accessing it.
I give Kurt the signal and air is slowly added to the bags. We keep close attention on keeping the plane level. The craft begins to slowly inch itself toward the surface. Marty and Ed said there was a cheer from the spectators on shore as they saw the top of the tail break the surface. We continued to fill the bags eventually reaching capacity. The Cessna 180K is now upright, the wings barely showing just beneath the surface. So far everything is according to plan. But this is only the beginning. We still need to rig additional bags to get the plane higher out of the water. It’s important we don’t attempt to do this all in one lift. The resistance and water weight would destroy the aircraft.
This next set of bags will raise the aircraft wings out of the water and allow them to slowly drain of all that water weight. Taking into consideration the weight of the aircraft and the estimated displacement, along with the water weight, we chose (2) 2500lb air bags. We attach these bags at a lower point to allow for greater lift. The cross member struts between the pontoons make a perfect attachment point. Taking great care to avoid the hydraulic lines Kurt and I rig pre-measured lengths of braided ¾” polypropylene line to the pontoon cross members. Next we attach the (2) bags with locking carabineers. Unlike the VRS2000 air bags which have (2) rigging points, the 2500lb bags have a v-strap configuration that lead to a single rigging point. This gives us more rigging flexibility and options. When inflated, these bags will cradle the engine cowl, where most of the weight is, and continue back toward the leading edge of the wings. The rigging is doubled checked and we’re ready to bring the wings out of the water. I signal Kurt to surface so I can talk with him. Once at the surface I explain to Kurt that we can’t expose this beautiful aircraft to the owner with all this mud caked on the nose. It will crush him seeing her in this condition. Kurt agrees and we descend and clean the engine cowl and propeller. I remove one of my fins and use it as a fan to flush mud out of the engine compartment. Lastly, we polish the chrome nosecone on the prop. She’s shinning pretty and ready for her debut.
Marty and Ed stand-by as Kurt and I cautiously add air to the recovery bags. The floatplane begins to rise. Another cheer from shore as they witness the wings gently kiss the surface of the water. We add air in small increments allowing water to drain properly from the wings. Cold air begins to once again blow across the wings as they continue to rise above the surface. The water drains from the wings and more air is slowly added to the bags. The fuselage is now showing her gorgeous paint once again. I wish I was on shore to see the owners face as his Cessna rose from the depths of the lake and smiled at him.
The (2) VRS2000 bags that are on top of the wings have no lift now because they are completely out of the water. We leave them in place as safety bags in case there is a problem with the 2500lb bags while we tow the floatplane toward the egress area.
Ed prepares a tow line while Marty positions the boat. Kurt and I attach the tow line to the aircraft. With the Achilles Inflatable boat we tow backwards for better control. This also allows the boat operator to see the dive team and object being towed. Once connected, Marty reverses the boat slowly taking the slack out of the tow line. I get into the boat while Kurt stays with the airplane. Kurt will continue to monitor the rigging and bags to ensure there are no issues during the towing process. I change places with Marty so that he and Ed are positioned to respond in case Kurt has equipment problems.
The wind was certainly working against us as we head guardedly toward shore. It’s a slow process. With the increased resistance of the water, it would be easy to twist and damage the aircraft by getting over zealous with the towing. As we approached shallow water the pontoons began to make light contact with the vegetation. This is the ideal time to stop and rig the next set of recovery bags.
As we towed the aircraft closer to shore, the owner was getting advice from every “armchair quarterback” spectator. “What’s taking these guys so long” “Just hook onto it and yank it out of the water” “Get the big crane in here and pluck it out” “Tie it to the back of a truck and drag it on shore” These were just some of the comments he endured. Those suggestions may have been easier but this is an ongoing FAA and Sheriff’s investigation. Preserving this aircraft is crucial. I’ve seen too many aircraft recoveries done by “so called” experts who have destroyed the plane and brought it back in pieces. That’s just not the way we work. Even the Detectives were getting a little antsy, asking me if I thought we’d be done within the next hour. I informed them that we have a long way to go. After inspecting the lake bottom all the way to the egress site we determine that additional rigging and lifting was needed. Getting the aircraft over a underwater berm created by boats throttling onto their trailers, lowering the landing gear, exposing and pumping out the pontoons, and getting the plane onto shore, was going to take time. It’s already mid-day and as I mentioned earlier, people expect the object to pop right up, pull it on shore and you’re done.