I Learned About Flying From That

It is a common aviation axiom that every accident is always a result of a succession of errors, rather than due to one single error. Well, I have learned that a successful rescue follows the same rules: It requires a chain of correct actions, altruism and fortunate coincidences.

I departed Madrid (Cuatro Vientos LECU) on the 30th of April at 1615 local time, on a routine IFR flight plan to Palma de Mallorca (LEPA). Estimated flight time was only one hour 20 minutes in our well-equipped PA-46T Piper Malibu JetProp. Planned flight level was FL 250 and all fuel tanks were filled to maximum capacity. Weather conditions were CAVOK throughout the route. My co-owner, David, and I had flown this airplane from the United States six years ago across the freezing Arctic, so this short jaunt with a super-reliable Pratt & Whitney PT6A-34 engine was no more than a yawn.

Passing the city of Valencia, I requested a slow descent and was authorized to descend in steps to FL 130 and maintain upon reaching. Torque during descent (as indicated on the torque indicator and the engine trend monitor) was set to approximately 250 lbs, and a descent rate of between 1,100 and 1,300 feet per minute was established. Upon reaching FL 130, throttle was advanced in order to arrest the descent. However, we kept descending! There was no response from the engine. I immediately engaged the throttle manual override but the engine still failed to respond. Inspection of the instruments revealed that the torque indicated zero thrust. Our only engine had flamed out!

Fuel tanks were approximately three quarters full and there were no visible warning lights. At this point, I pulled the yoke to bleed speed and increase glide range. Speed was reduced to 80 knots indicated and I informed ATC on the current frequency that we were experiencing an engine problem. Suspecting a fuel problem, I immediately switched tanks, engaged the manual wing fuel pump and the emergency fuel pump. When the panel light came on indicating that the header tank was full, I released the emergency fuel pump switch and initiated the restart sequence as follows: throttle retarded to idle; condition lever "off" to prevent explosion; prop full forward; dual batt "press"; ignition "on"; starter "on." There was no audible evidence of engine starter actuating and neither ITT nor torque increased. Fuel tank was switched again, and start sequence repeated exactly as before with the same result. In order to increase glide range further, I retarded the prop to full feather and performed the start sequence for a third time, with the same result: no engine restart.

Somewhere between FL 080 and FL 100, I requested an emergency diversion to Ibiza. At about FL 070, my Garmin 430 GPS confirmed that our glide range was insufficient to reach land. I declared a mayday and informed ATC that we were going to ditch. I requested that ATC immediately inform the rescue services of our situation and location. I asked the passenger next to me to go to the back and join the other two passengers.

I was well aware of the grim chances of surviving a ditching. Passing through 2,000 feet above msl, all I could think of was, "My God, please don't let us break up on impact!" Even though I have never taken a seaplane lesson, through pure common sense (and maybe a lot of luck) I did exactly what needed to be done. I switched off the battery and master and fuel tanks and pulled the yoke to maintain a nose-high attitude and did not lower the landing gear. All I could do was concentrate on moving my hands and feet to maintain wings level and rudder centered in order to hit the water at the lowest controllable airspeed (MCA).

Pre-impact, I instructed all the passengers to tighten their seat belts and assume the brace position. The aircraft hit the sea tail-first. All hell broke loose; the noise was deafening, as though the wings were being torn off and the aircraft was breaking in two. My vision of the airplane gently skipping over the water like a stone on a pond was dead wrong. The impact was very violent as the deceleration was very rapid. Our seatbelts (and our bodies) withstood many Gs (probably in excess of 12), and within a few seconds the airplane stopped and rested on the water. I unlatched my seat belt, looked around and thankfully saw that the aircraft structure was intact and my passengers were all right.

I jumped into the back, opened the top part of the cabin door without lowering the stairs, and told the three passengers to evacuate the aircraft and jump into the water without delay. I remained on board for a few minutes to unload the life raft and life jackets and toss them into the water. Then, as an added safety precaution, I grabbed two suitcases as possible flotation devices and also threw them into the water. I then jumped into the water myself. In retrospect, I guess I could have lowered the flaps to reduce landing speed by about 5 kias and asked everybody to don their life jackets as we were descending, but in the heat of the moment there is only so much one can remember to do.

The sea was relatively calm, but cold (about 60° F), and the aircraft was actually floating, with wings level and with no visible damage to either the wings or the fuselage. There was a slight inclination along the lateral axis towards the nose, given the weight of the engine, whose angle progressively increased over time. After about all of 40 minutes, with tail high, the aircraft finally sunk to the bottom of the sea. As it went down, I could see the huge dent on the belly near the rear, where the airplane hit the water. Unfortunately, two of the four life jackets drifted away and were unable to be retrieved, and as bad luck would have it, the life raft failed to inflate! While we were always careful about religiously complying with engine and airframe maintenance, I guess we didn't inspect and refill the life raft's compressed air bottle, and it was several years old.

Meanwhile, an airline captain for Spanair had heard our mayday, and to his great credit, informed the passengers that he would be making an unscheduled detour off the airways to see if he could spot an airplane that had just gone down near their location. Thankfully, he did spot our airplane before it sank and radioed to all stations the exact GPS coordinates. Then, a helicopter carrying a well-known businessman and his friends to the Balearics heard the airliner's broadcast and also heroically decided to detour and route towards the GPS waypoint.

The three passengers and I were in the water for about an hour and a half, holding on to the suitcases, when the helicopter flew overhead and tossed their life raft, which did inflate, and we all got into it. We then had to wait for at least another half hour until the rescue helicopter arrived. The helicopter lowered a winch and raised each of us one by one. We were freezing. I was the last one to be hoisted and it took all my willpower to overcome the cold, intensified by the rotor wash above me. When we were all aboard, they took us to Palma de Mallorca where we were taken to hospitals for observation and treatment of hypothermia and light injuries. We were released later that night.

Upon reflection, I realized that maintaining the correct speed and pitch angle to touch down just right, while absolutely necessary, was just one factor leading to a happy outcome. It was the critical and fortuitous string of events, starting with my mayday and followed by the combination of commendable airline and private helicopter diversions that not only provided us with a badly needed life raft but also helped pinpoint our position for the coast guard helicopter. It became very clear to us that had we waited for the slow official rescue services to reach us without the life raft, assuming they could even find us without the updated coordinates, hypothermia would have been perilously more advanced.

As for me, among the lessons that I have learned, is that never again will I fly over a body of water, no matter for how short a time, without checking that the life rafts and jackets have been inspected and are current.

Written by David Flitterman (co-owner) on behalf of Jose Maria de Arcas (PIC).

To see more of Barry Ross' aviation art, go to barryrossart.com.


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