Kurt and I attach (2) 3000lb recovery pontoon bags to the aircrafts pontoons. These bags are 21’ long, with a 2’ diameter, and can hold 48 cubic feet of air each. They will raise the floatplane to a point where we can tow it closer to shore and eventually expose the access panels on top of the pontoons. On the outside of the pontoon bags we also attach (2) additional 2500lb bags to act as stabilizer bags. These stabilizer bags prevent the aircraft from rolling over. Once all the rigging is inspected we begin to partially inflate the pontoon bags. We want just enough air allowing the bags and rigging to settle into place. Next we inflate the stabilizer bags to their capacity. With the aircraft stable we can now fully inflate the pontoon bags. The removed access panels on the bottom of the fuselage allow water to efficiently drain from the aircraft.
I talk with the owner of the plane to discuss the vegetation and berm situation. We have a few options. We decide to lower the landing gear and see if we can roll the aircraft up the incline and eventually over the berm. One issue is going to be the uneven bottom terrain. We bring the owner of the floatplane out in the boat so that he can lower the landing gear. Once the gear is lowered, we return him to shore and begin the tedious task of inching the plane toward the shore. At first we pull it by hand. Everything appears to be going great. We get over the first incline. Then the plane settles into a deeper hole just before the berm. It’s an uneven bottom but the stabilizer bags do their job keeping the aircraft from rolling. The final underwater obstacle is the berm in front of us. The backside of the berm is soft and the front side is hard when looking from shore. I’m concerned that with the landing gear down we’re going to get the plane hung-up on the backside of the berm. The decision is made to raise the landing gear and gently glide the pontoons over the soft, backside of the berm. Once again we bring the owner out to the plane. We encounter a problem during the attempt to raise the landing gear. The gear is full of mud and vegetation. This landing gear compartment will need to be cleaned-out. At this time both Kurt and I have been in the water for many hours and I’m hypothermic. My wetsuit is a little more worn than Kurt’s and is no longer supplying the warmth I need. The decision is for me to get out and change into dry clothes. While I’m changing, Kurt cleans out the landing gear compartments and the owner is able to raise the landing gear.
Once in dry clothes, I disconnect the truck from the boat trailer and position it for the final phase of the recovery. Marty and I carry a custom built, gasoline powered; 12,000lb pulling capability winch from the cargo trailer and place it on the ground in back of the truck. We secure the winch to the trailer hitch of the truck using a 5/8” stainless steel chain and locking carabineers. I recently had a company in Las Vegas custom build the winch specifically for our recoveries. This was going to be the first time using it. It’s a beast and I’m excited to see it perform.
Ed replaces me in the water and he and Kurt rig the winch cable to the tow line already in place on the aircraft. It feels good being in dry clothes. The signal is given to take up the slack on the line. I engage the winch and it quickly draws the excess cable in. It seems to be moving too quick. The plane begins to move toward the backside of the berm. The pontoons appear to be moving through the soft silt with ease. Then the winch stops pulling. I get a little concerned and try numerous times to pull the aircraft. The aircraft owner’s adult son had been watching the entire recovery with his dad. He has a lot of experience logging and using winches. He comes over and politely asks if he can make a suggestion regarding the winch. I’m anxious for his input and tell him it would be greatly appreciated seeing it’s my first time using it. He takes the time to show me the multiple lever system to change gears and speed and points out that one of the levers wasn’t locked into place. He corrected it for me and informed me that it should now pull in low gear with little effort. The problem was solved. The winch worked to perfection and allowed the plane to crawl over the berm. Now clear of the berm, and in a deeper pool of water, the landing gear was once again lowered. All that’s left is winch the craft up the boat ramp and expose the top of the pontoons so they could be pumped out. Then winch it up to the parking lot and wrap this up.
I engaged the winch and the floatplane slowly moves up the ramp. Once the top of the pontoons were exposed I stopped. The pontoons are filled with over 4000lbs of water and would crush the landing gear and possibly ruin the struts of the pontoons if I continue. I informed the planes owner that we had a large commercial trash pump. He felt the large diameter hose wouldn’t fit into the openings of the pontoon pump-outs. While he and his son took turns using the planes hand-pump, my team began removing all the recovery bags and rigging hardware. It took us quite a while to deflate, inspect, and re-pack the recovery gear into the trailers. The owner and his son were still attempting to hand-pump the forward compartments. Kurt noticed large access panels on the top of the pontoons and asked if he could remove one. Once the panel was removed, he determined if we removed the metal intake screen from the end of the hose we could possibly use the water pump.
Kurt had now been in the water over 7 hours and he was freezing. We decided to get him out and send Marty in. Once in dry clothes, Kurt and I retrieved the water pump from the trailer. We carried the pump onto an adjacent dock. I removed the intake screen and handed the hose to Ed. It fit perfect into the access panel opening. We started the pump and within 45 seconds the chamber was empty. Marty removed the rest of the access panels while Ed pumped them out. What would have taken hours with the hand pump only took minutes with the commercial pump. The plane was now free of the water weight and there was no longer a concern of structural damage.
Our next concern was nearing the top of the boat ramp. Adjacent to the town ramp is the privately owned ramp belonging to the Docksider Restaurant. This ramp has (2) large telephone type poles on each side. Separating the properties are some trees and landscaping. The wing span of the Cessna 180K was in danger of not clearing these obstructions. Spectators wanted to use a chainsaw to cut the pole and possibly the tree down. A chainsaw was even brought to the site. The idea of bringing the crane in was also thrown around. I spoke with the owner and told him I thought my team could get his plane into the parking lot without having to cut anything. He looked at me and said you’re team has done a flawless job till now and he trusted my decision.
I discussed the plan with my team, repositioned the truck and winch, and re-rigged the tow line. With my staff positioned and carefully watching, I began to pull the aircraft up the ramp. As the starboard wing approached the pole I got a thumbs-up from my staff. The floatplane cleared the pole by less than 2”. Next was the tree. We decided to use man power and turn the plane slightly. Our thought was that when we started to pull with the winch the aircraft would slowly straightened itself out allowing the wing to clear the tree. It worked perfect! We’re now in the parking lot. Cheers and congratulations were heard. We blocked the wheels and removed the remaining towing hardware. Once free of recovery gear, the plane was turned and pushed backwards into the parking spaces.
It’s now 17:00 hours and we’re all cold and tired but our day is far from over. It takes us another fifteen minutes for Marty and Ed to change, finish packing, and say our goodbyes. We met some great people today. Our team heads back to the Dive Center. Now we have to unload, inspect and clean equipment, fill tanks, and prepare for the next recovery. It’s now 20:15 hours and it’s time for the team to head out for a well deserved dinner and debriefing.
Rich Morin, owner of Rich Morin’s Professional Scuba Centers has performed over 400 recoveries over the past 27 years. His dedicated team takes pride in doing a job right. Rich is a Course Director with the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) and has over 10,000 dives. He teaches more than 125 different recreational, technical, and professional programs. He has authored many courses including multiple programs related to underwater crime scene investigation. He is also a professional shark feeder. Rich can be contacted at 1-800-924-DIVE or firstname.lastname@example.org.