We were going down. At a couple of hundred feet I made the decision and said "My controls," at which point Mark put his hands up in the air and took his feet off the rudder pedals. I recall he then sat on his hands, probably to resist any temptation to assist with our upcoming water landing. I looked over at the airspeed indicator to see it pegged at 73 knots. Great job, Mark! I added flaps, one notch at a time, while slowing the airplane.
OK, we were at the next phase of this thrilling day, the imminent water landing. It would be my first, and hopefully my last. I had never discussed the "unlikely event" with any other instructors but had read a few articles on ditching. Keep the wings level, nose slightly up, and touch down just above stall. I also recalled that if the airplane is going too fast (especially a fixed-gear aircraft like our Warrior) it could easily nose over, and too slow wouldn't be good either. I am proud to say it was my best landing ever. Shoulder harnesses tightened, we were probably at about 35 knots indicated, with the stall horn blaring, when we touched down. The airplane skidded about five to 10 feet, some water came up over the nose, and we came to a complete stop. I clearly remember thinking that the landing itself was actually somewhat uneventful, and we were then on to the next task.
"Get out!" Mark shouted. From my right-seat position I climbed onto the wing and scrambled over the cabin roof to the left side for balance, as Mark exited the airplane and stood on the right wing. We were on a 45-degree angle from the barge, and probably 300 feet away. Both of us were shouting and waving our arms to attract somebody from the barge for assistance. Nothing. I imagined the vessel was simply anchored in the center of the river, for whatever reason. Just then, a helicopter approached from the south. Unfortunately, it didn't change its path or speed and kept flying right over us.
Next was probably the scariest moment of my life. It was about a minute after the landing when the nose dropped, the tail went up and the airplane sank. It left Mark and me about 10 feet from each other, treading water, hoping to be rescued. While we did plenty of things right in our quest for survival, not having any flotation devices was probably our biggest mistake.
The inside liner of Mark's coat was bright orange. He took it off, turned it inside out and put it back on for greater visibility. He then got a bit anxious and said he would swim to the barge. I told Mark it wasn't a good idea and that help was on the way. I knew that somebody had responded to the mayday calls. If we had to do it over again, I would have suggested each of us taking a sleeve of the coat. We would then hold on and stretch it for even greater visibility. Instead Mark started swimming. We became separated in the Hudson, which was our second big mistake.
Twenty minutes in the 38-degree water seemed like an eternity. I was no longer looking for (or waving to) helicopters. It was more important to remain conscious and conserve energy. I was doing the back float while spitting water out of my mouth. It occurred to me this could be the end of my life. I started thinking how fortunate I'd been, and that I had accomplished a lot in 42 years. And on the bright side, friends and relatives would be able to say that often-spoken and true cliché: "He died doing what he loved."
Just then I heard the sound of a helicopter. I looked over my right shoulder and saw a blue, unmistakable NYPD helicopter coming toward me. I resumed the back float knowing I would soon be rescued. Similar to the sight of the helicopter, the next image will also be a lifelong memory. Two NYPD scuba divers arrived, one on each side. They poured me into the rescue basket while I was still coherent enough to realize my life was saved. Fortunately, Mark was rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter. We were both taken to Jacobi Medical Center in The Bronx, where we were kept overnight and treated for hypothermia.
I learned a few days later it was Tony Sanseverino (the Liberty Tours helicopter pilot who had communicated with me on CTAF a brief moment before the engine failed) who relayed my mayday call to the NYPD helicopter team at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. Tony knew them well, having retired from the unit only a couple of months earlier. NYPD scrambled to launch the helicopter and save my life. The crew consisted of pilots Tony Cassillo and Erin Nolan, divers Liam Devine and John Mortimer, and crew members Brendan Galligan and Andy Apas. Including Tony, those are seven names that will remain, forever, on my life debit list. Mark was rescued by Coast Guard helicopter crew members Ben Bradley and Scott Sanborn.
We should have been better prepared. I had flown the Hudson River Corridor more than 20 times, never with any flotation gear. Instructors, fellow club members and other pilots around the airport were all regularly flying the same route, never with a raft or life vests. We all assumed the Hudson River had a lot of traffic, and either a boat or aircraft would spot us quickly to assist. While that was true for US Airways Flight 1549, obviously that was not the case for us just a few miles north. The mayday calls made the difference. And we were lucky enough to have the NYPD and Coast Guard provide quick and effective response.
The airplane was never recovered, and the cause of complete engine failure is therefore still unknown. My cell phone is probably still in the flight bag, inside the airplane and at the bottom of the Hudson River. While Mark had his cell phone in his shirt pocket and actually made a 911 call, we later learned that by the time the communications made it to Floyd Bennett Field, the rescue crew was already halfway to the Hudson River.
Aside from flotation gear, signaling devices would have been good for us to have along: smoke and streamers in the water for a day flight, and a strobe light for day or night. A hand-held radio to grab on the way out the door also would have made a big difference.
We did some things right, but we both know we were lucky to have had such a positive outcome after being so poorly prepared. By far, the biggest factor of our survival was the courage and professionalism of our rescuers. They saved our lives and we are forever grateful.
To see more of Barry Ross' aviation art, go to barryrossart.com.