Secrets to Recovering a Sunken Airplane

A professional underwater recovery dive team perspective.

Floatplane Recovery

Floatplane Recovery

** The aircraft is strategically cradled with air
bags for egress as part of the recovery process.**

Thursday, October 11, 2012, a floatplane capsizes in Glen Lake, New York. The two pilots that were in the aircraft escaped without injury. The local emergency services were activated. After ensuring the safety of the pilots, a volunteer dive team decided that they would flip the aircraft back over. After attempting unsuccessfully for many hours, in front of local TV crews and newsmen, the decision was made to drill holes in the forward air chamber in the pontoons. The assumption was that it would give enough negative buoyancy allowing them to up-right the aircraft. You guessed it; the floatplane sank to the bottom.

It seems that whenever there is an accident requiring an underwater recovery every person whoever dipped their toe in the water is now a “recovery expert”. From Dock Builders, Contractors, Recreational Divers, Plumbers, Marina personnel, and part-time Fire & Police Dive Teams, everyone becomes a master. Underwater recoveries require a very specialized, highly trained team. It takes proper equipment to get the job done safely and proficiently.

That evening at approximately 18:30 hours, I was contacted by the local Sheriff’s Department. I was asked to assemble our professional recovery team and recover the aircraft the following day. It was requested we be on-site at 08:00 hours. I attempted to gather information regarding the aircraft from the officer. He eventually had me speak to a family friend of the floatplanes owner. Information was a little vague due to the high stress level from the events that day. I was also informed that the aircraft was in 30’+ of water and it was upside down.

I have many professional divers on staff that I utilize for recoveries. When it comes to FAA, NTSB or other government agencies that may be investigating the accident; I have a select group of specialists. My first call was to Kurt Riley, my primary diver. Kurt works as my full-time equipment technician and sales person. He is the “Mr. Gadget” of the scuba industry. This guy can fix anything. Kurt and I just click when we’re working underwater. We’re on the same thought wave and our number one priority is always safety for the dive team. Recoveries go very smoothly with Kurt and me underwater. Kurt’s dad is an aircraft mechanic and Kurt grew up around planes. Next I phoned Marty Bedell. Marty is our IT guy and a “Jack of All Trades”. He seems to know a little bit about everything. Marty is a back-up Diver and manages everything topside. He’s hard working, organized, and the kind of guy I need for recovery jobs. The final call went out to Ed “Fast Eddie” Miron. Ed and I have been friends for years. He works for a robotics company as their Northeast Regional Sales Manager. He’s also a professional diver. Ed too is a back-up Diver and mainly works topside with Marty organizing and handing recovery equipment to the divers. The topside team members have to anticipate the divers needs and be ready to act in a moment’s notice.

The team was in place and I had a 05:00 briefing scheduled at the Dive Center. It was time for me to get to work and research the aircraft. It's now 19:45 hours and I'm still not certain what type of aircraft we're recovering. I know it's a Cessna, possibly a 172, 180, 182, or maybe even a 206. I needed to know size, weights, approximate displacements, type of pontoons, wing and pontoon volumes, rigging points, area hazards, etc. This information will allow me to plan a more effective recovery. We pride ourselves in not doing any additional damage to the aircraft, vehicle, or vessel we're hired to recover. I have authored programs for the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) in underwater crime scene investigation, photographing potential evidence, evidence recovery, victim recovery, vehicle / vessel / aircraft recoveries to name a few. We've worked on a lot of "high profile" recoveries over the years and I know the value of documentation, photos, video, and preservation of evidence. We treat every recovery as a potential crime scene.

I decide to concentrate on the Cessna 172, 180 and 182. I spend hours researching the information that I need. It’s now 22:45 hours and want to spend a little time preparing for tomorrows briefing. I make the necessary copies to hand out to the team and start to mentally rehearse the equipment needs and the procedures we’ll use to recover the aircraft.

Friday, October 12th 05:00. The team is in the classroom awaiting the briefing. I hand out photos of the Cessna’s and statistics on the aircrafts. On the front dry board is a drawing of a Cessna 182 upside down to simulate what we’re expecting. We discuss safety equipment, underwater recovery equipment, and surface equipment. We look at possible rigging points, stress factors, weight distribution, and access panels. We formulate a recovery plan; discuss packing and loading equipment so that the equipment needed first is packed last. Then we formulate a contingency plan. When we think we have it all figured out, we take a step back and discuss and plan for the worst case scenario.

06:10 hours; we start to pack and load the trailers and boat. Every piece of equipment is checked and double checked. The team makes certain that no equipment needed for this recovery is left behind. The one advantage regarding this accident is the lake’s only 15 minutes from the Dive Center. If need be, I can always have someone bring additional equipment. My team is used to being far from home for recoveries and they realize the importance of having the necessary recovery gear.

07:30 hours and we make a final check. We’re good to go. Not certain how long our day will be we stop for donuts, bagels, and beverages.

08:00 hours, we pull into the parking lot of the Docksider Restaurant located on Glen Lake. The aircraft supposedly is located off the front of their property a few hundred yards out. As the team exits from the vehicles three gentlemen approach us. It’s the owner of the aircraft, the other pilot who was in the plane, and a family friend. Introductions were made and we start to discuss the misfortunes of the prior day. It’s difficult when I see bad things happen to good people. After speaking with the owner and seeing the stress in his face, hear the sadness in his voice, and witness the tear in his eye, I could tell that this plane was “his baby”. He doesn’t know me or my team. He’s not aware of our qualifications or expertise and he’s frightened that we’re going to ruin his aircraft. I asked to speak to him alone in the cab of my truck. Once in the truck I again expressed my condolences and explained that I would do everything humanly possible to take care of his aircraft. I have a standard form that I fill out for recoveries. Once that form was done we then discussed the plane. It’s a 1977 Cessna 180K. I think he was surprised when I pulled out a diagram and specifications for that type of aircraft. It’s all about the professionalism, showing him that I took time to research his aircraft and was sincerely concerned about his loss. He and I discussed the recovery plan step-by-step. I shared with him information regarding the specialized equipment we’re going to use, rigging points, photography, etc. I explained that we would first locate the aircraft and attach a marker buoy and dive flag. Watching from shore he would then see me and Kurt enter the water with a lot of photography equipment. I told him this was going to take some time because we photograph every inch of the plane. We would then return to shore and discuss our findings. The longer we talked the more at ease he became. He had suggestions for additional rigging points and discussed all the access panels under the wings with me. Together, we fine-tuned the recovery plan. While the owner and I were discussing the aircraft, my team had been very busy unloading equipment, launching our boat, and preparing for the recovery.

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.

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.

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 richmorin@yahoo.com.