My dad let me know that several of you have expressed interest in hearing about my version of Saturday’s events. Below is a slightly altered version of the email I sent my closest friends on Saturday evening once my dad and I had arrived safely to the hotel in Nassau.
I also want to thank you for this online community that he so enjoys and for having been passionate enough about airplanes and their accessories to afford him the dialogue and information that probably helped save our lives this weekend.
I’m writing this email from the Sheraton hotel in Nassau, after one of the most exhilarating days of my life. My dad and I took off from the smaller Tamiami-Executive Airport this morning, en route to Haiti after picking up his plane from a couple weeks of routine annual maintenance. I had bought a shiny new digital camera for the trip that morning, and was hungrily reading through the owner’s manual (something I never do) when I heard my dad speak into the headset, calling out to the nearest air traffic controllers that he planned to do an emergency descent because of an unexpected drop in oil pressure.
I thought that was kind of weird, but was mostly interested in organizing my granola bars and putting my travel sunscreen into MY backpack instead of his, and figured that if anything was really going on we would calmly make an unplanned landing on some dusty runway in the Bahamas, fix whatever was going on with the oil pressure, and be on our way. Then my dad’s voice became a little more pressured, and I noticed his hands were shaking. He declared an emergency/mayday landing, and started calling in our information, altitude, and describing where we were in relation to the nearest Bahamas island, which was visible. I looked at the oil pressure gauge and it was teetering around 11- he later told me that roughly 50 is a normal number for that measure. When it dropped below 10 the numbers turned bright red on the screen, which is never a good sign. Below us was fluorescent blue, crystal-like water. My dad told me to tighten my seatbelt low around my hips, which I did, much more nervous at this point. He told me he was going to release the parachute when we dropped to 2000 feet, which was standard protocol, and to PLEASE tighten my seatbelt as much as I possibly could. We could see land, but at around 8 or 9 on the oil gauge the engine seized completely and sputtered to a stop. Seeing the propeller stopped cold, completely motionless, right on the front of the plane in the middle of the sky was bewildering to say the very least.
My dad was obviously spooked, but mostly composed, adjusting whichever controls would respond at that point and continuing to communicate with air traffic controllers in various locations. They asked how many “souls” were on board, and I thought to myself that that particular word choice was decidedly morbid for a moment like this. As my dad’s voice became more gravelly, I sensed in him and began to feel myself what I now have the time and luxury to recognize as dread. Dread is sticky, humid; it fills the air and waits heavily, knowing and fearing, hating to have to know, but knowing all the same.
What I can remember of the time between when his voice got crackly and when he pulled the parachute is that I tried to sit very still, breathe slowly, and funnel encouraging thoughts towards my dad (or at least not get in the way in the meantime). I had a very strong feeling of not wanting to go through what was about to happen, but also of understanding, as time ticked quickly by and the oil pressure slid downward, that any other less awful potential outcomes were rapidly fading from the realm of reality. I was mostly calm, I think, resigned to having to experience what was to come, and grimly confident in my dad’s ability and determination to see us through as best he could.
The air traffic controllers told us that the U.S. Coast Guard had been notified, and that we were four minutes from land. Four minutes was about three minutes too far, because we sank to 2200 feet at what looked to be a mile off shore, and my dad decided to pull the parachute. BOOM! We shot forward, I hit my head pretty hard on the dashboard-- the energy of the parachute rocketing out the back of the plane caused us to pitch forward, and all of a sudden we were stopped still, dangling it seemed, looking straight down at so much flash-blue water. Just as quickly as it had careened over, the plane righted itself, the parachute slider doing its job, working the larger overarching parachute upright into the sky. Then we floated downwards, somewhat slowly, and hit the water HARD, a big firm collision right up your spine and down, but before I knew it water was rushing in EVERYwhere, and I couldn’t get my door open and whoa that water was pretty cold, aren’t we in the damn Caribbean here anyway?
So my dad pulled off my seatbelt and yanked me out of my seat and out his door, which had opened successfully, and we were both okay, pretty panicky, breathing fast, out into the water. He had one of those neat self-inflating rafts, which certainly did its job, albeit so quickly that it turned out to be upside down once we got ourselves onto it, but no matter, it was quite sturdy and that water was colder than I had expected. We were soaked, giddy with adrenaline and the sheer gratitude that comes with survival I suppose, and in absolute awe of this gigantic orange and white parachute that was still billowing calmly on the water, fully inflated, just resting there about 70 feet away from us. The plane was about 1/3 in the water, 2/3 out, and all of a sudden I noticed my dad’s wallet bobbing towards me on the raft. And then my backpack, and his passport bag. A grocery bag of those silly granola bars, two oranges, a couple water bottles. I swam around a bit, collecting whatever was reachable, then got out of the water and tried to stay warm. So much stuff is still in that plane, and I don’t know if we’ll be able to get it back. My dad’s laptop is in there, that camera I just bought, plenty of dollars’ worth of plane equipment, and etc. BUT, it doesn’t matter!! It just doesn’t matter. After about 45 minutes of pulling ourselves into the sun by the ropes of the parachute, staying near the plane but not too near, a Coast Guard plane zoomed into view, and circled around us for the next 45 minutes, until a helicopter came around. I can’t tell you how comforting that circling plane was, even though it didn’t do anything beyond that. Talk about true moral support. After the helicopter blew the parachute far away enough from us that it wouldn’t pick up the plane and potentially wreck the whole rescue operation, they lowered a rescue swimmer (Chris Ensley, one of my new heroes) down into the water, complete with snorkel and flippers. He swam over to us on the raft, asked how many people had been in the plane and if anyone was seriously injured, and then put me in a lifeguard’s headlock of sorts and swam me back to the helicopter, directly underneath it, where they had lowered a weird kind of human basket/cage to hoist me up. I was freezing, pretty freaked out, and really grateful for the U.S. Coast Guard. He went back to my dad on the raft, did the same thing, and then suited us up with a giant wool blanket, the kind you always see survivors of anything on TV wearing. We coptered it back to the nearest island, which was this one-- Nassau of the Bahamas, and tried to figure out what in the world we were supposed to do from there.
I am SO GRATEFUL for each and every one of you in my life, and for my life! The street signs here in Nassau, where you would see a YIELD sign in the States, say GIVE WAY. I don’t know why, but that spoke to me this evening as we were checking in to the hotel. I’ll be in touch as soon as I can.
With gratitude and affection!