Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Over Water, Under Canopy!

Saved by the BRS parachute

Other airborne pilots chime in on the radio, offering helpful advice. McGlaughlin has already diverted course to the nearest landfall—Andros Island in the Bahamas. Now, he can only hope against dwindling hope to land safely somewhere there. But, the oil-pressure gauge moves through 30...then 20...then 10, even as the CHTs inch closer to the redline. And then things get as real they ever get.

"The engine seized, the propeller locked up," McGlaughlin remembers in his presentation to an attentive audience at the Sun 'n Fun fly-in in Lakeland, Fla., last April. "There's no more engine checklists after that; you're kind of done. The Cirrus is easy to get to best glide: You pull back on the trim, all the way back, and you're going down at about 600 to 700 feet per minute at 90 knots."

"A Fairly Incompetent Pilot"
McGlaughlin does a rough calculation. Their altitude of 9,500 feet and position relative to Andros will get him and Elaine close, to within about two miles offshore. Close, but no cigar.

Through the windshield, they can see Andros, a hazy line in the distance. Tamiami asks for his lat/long position. He forgets that lat/long is displayed on the main screen of the Avidyne GPS and starts to flip through pages, uncomfortably aware of how foggy his mind feels.

After a couple of minutes, Tamiami control calmly tells him to push "ident" on the transponder. He complies. "Got you," the controller says. His reassuring manner settles McGlaughlin down a bit: The Coast Guard will be on their way now. Then he notices that in that short time trying to retrieve his location—normally a no-brainer process—he has unintentionally swung 40 degrees off course and dived the airplane up to 130 knots.

"If you've ever been in one of these positions where you think you really might die," he says, methodically unraveling his tale with self-effacing candor, "it changes how you function; it changes how you think. My focus narrowed so tightly that I was aware I was becoming a fairly incompetent pilot. Also, I was getting quieter and quieter. My voice was starting to change a little bit."

Making The Decision
He corrects course and pitches back, slowing to 90 knots. Then he reviews the course of action he'll take, and it's not ditching. At about 2,000 feet, he'll pull the BRS airframe-parachute handle in the cockpit. "After learning those ditching numbers, I'd really made the decision a couple years earlier, when I began doing a lot of this flying over water. I was only waiting to see if I would be able to pull it over land or a mangrove swamp. It was tantalizing to see the coast so close."

McGlaughlin had gone through the Cirrus simulator in Atlanta some time before. He describes it as being "very expensive and inconvenient—and really a good idea." In the sim, he had practiced several parachute deployments, but it hadn't at all prepared him for the "up close and personal" aspects of what awaited him and Elaine.


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