Elaine McGlaughlin after a successful parachute deployment in a Cirrus SR22 over the Bahamas.
Here's the situation: You're over the broad expanse of turquoise ocean southeast of the Florida coast in your single-engine Cirrus, still many miles from Haiti—or any land at all. The oil pressure just dropped another 10 on the gauge. It's down to 30 now. Cylinder-head temp gauges are creeping noticeably toward the red lines. Not good. No, this isn't looking good at all.
Worse by far, your daughter Elaine sits next to you, the daughter you've loved all her young life. The same Elaine you've held, sung to, rocked to sleep, taken a million pictures of, fed and protected and prepared for adult life.
Your mind is curiously both sluggish and racing at the same time. Right now, it's the statistics about ditching in the open ocean that have you by the throat. The first stat is 90%. That's the amount of people who survive the initial water landing. The second stat is also 90%—for how many survivors live after a successful ditch. Those two numbers loom huge in your life right now, because together they calculate out to 81%: 81% of people who ditch survive the experience. Looked at another way, 19 out of 100 die.
You glance at your lovely Elaine. If you choose to ditch in the ocean 9,000 feet below, the odds say there's nearly one chance in five your beloved child and you aren't going to make it through. Those aren't acceptable odds.
When It Gets Real
For Dr. Richard McGlaughlin, en route from Florida to his monthly volunteer medical-relief work in the earthquake-stricken island nation of Haiti, this is no Cirrus-factory simulator emergency drill, no scary fictional product pitch. The way the engine is acting up, he knows he'll likely have to make a life-saving decision in minutes...if not seconds.
He thinks about the fixed gear of the Cirrus, perhaps his biggest sweat in a water-landing scenario. Even if all goes perfectly and they hit the water at near-stall speed—around 60 knots—the water will grab those vertical legs and could slam the nose down into the water and flip the plane over onto its back. He has read about other ditches. He knows that concrete-like impact could smash through the windshield to flood the cockpit instantaneously with a huge volume of water.
His blood runs cold at the thought of them both being knocked unconscious and drowning. He looks at her again. Her eyes seem a bit wider than normal, but her demeanor is calm. She has heard dad's mayday call and the back-and-forth with Tamiami. She won't add to his stress level by freaking out. Good girl, he thinks.
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.
Over the next few minutes, they snug down their seat harnesses and prepare everything possible for the water, including stationing the life raft within easy reach and checking their life vests.
Hanging By The Tail
McGlaughlin continues, "I'd been watching the coast get closer, 'I think I can make land,' I thought. Then a second later: 'Aw the hell with it, I don't care if I can make land or not,' and I pulled the chute handle at 2,300 feet."
Then come sharp moments of pure visceral drama—and not a little terror. First, the whoosh of the parachute-pulling rocket, then a dramatic deceleration from 90 knots to zero "in about two seconds...and that is quite a shock.
"After the 'chute deploys out the rear of the airplane, you hang from one parachute riser for a few moments." Pilot and daughter, hanging now by chest straps, look through the windshield—the nose is pointing straight down—"and all we saw was water. We were hanging by the tail."
Suddenly, an ungodly sound that McGlaughlin demonstrates to the audience, sounding like a kid imitating a jet flying close overhead. "Oh no," he says, "I thought, 'The parachute's ripped! I'm going to have to ditch after all!'" In fact, that sound is the Big Rip of the other risers tearing loose from the composite skin of the fuselage. "When you don't have an
engine making a lot of that disturbing racket that normally makes everything so hard to hear, the risers ripping free really, really makes a lot of noise!
"Then the airplane rights itself, and you're descending pretty much flat at about 17 knots vertical speed," McGlaughlin says. That may not sound like much—until you realize it's equivalent to jumping off a roof.
The airplane rotates slightly as it descends under the full red-and-white canopy. In the last seconds, the ocean seems to rush up. "You hit the water pretty hard. You feel it in your coccyx. You feel it all the way up your spine. And that's it."
Except it isn't, quite. A gush of sea water, "maybe a gallon or so on each side," rushes in through the vents, which he had not closed, and onto their laps. A moment of panic: Are they shipping water and sinking? Time to move!
McGlaughlin calls out, "Elaine? You alright?"
"I'm alright," Elaine says, but she was having a hard time with her seatbelt and her door. McGlaughlin's door opened fine, and his seatbelt came right off. Elaine's was easy to undo, then McGlaughlin sort of grabbed her and threw her out his door.
"She landed on the wing looking fine, and fell right into the water, looking cold and really frightened. 'Don't worry honey, I got this raft,'" McGlaughlin recounts.
He also grabs his money bag with his passport and credit cards, "All the stuff you don't want to lose track of," but can't find his glasses, gives up and scrambles out because the airplane is now settling fast, nose down, into the water.
He pivots to reach back inside, worried the plane might sink and pull him down to a watery grave, grabs the raft, yanks it out, stands on the wing, "and I pull that ripcord and the raft deploys, but we don't realize it's upside down for another half an hour!" And he laughs.
Help On The Way
"The ELB my friend Bruce Brown loaned me was connected to the raft. Apparently, you're supposed to keep it on your belt—I do that now. The state of our awareness was still impaired; we jumped on the raft then just started laughing.
"'It's good to be alive,' we said. We felt fine. The water wasn't that cold," McGlaughlin continues. Before long, it becomes evident they're floating in just 10 feet of water, two miles offshore as McGlaughlin had estimated when the engine seized.
"We settled into the raft, expecting the plane to sink, but it didn't. Stuff started floating out of the cockpit: a couple of oranges, some snacks and a little throwaway camera Elaine had brought, wrapped in watertight aluminum foil. We took some pictures, waited for awhile, then the Coast Guard came, first in a fixed-wing plane, which circled us. They could see the chute from 10 miles away, they told us later."
Elaine asked him, "How are they going to get us?"
"Well honey," McGlaughlin said, "I don't think they are in that plane, but it's really good to see 'em." Before long, "The Coast Guard version of a Blackhawk helicopter came. They dropped a swimmer, he asked if we were okay, then said, 'We're going to put you in a basket and up you go.'"
Dr. Richard McGlaughlin pauses, smiles, then says, "And that's how we got to Nassau that day. It took us another day to get to Haiti, but everybody was fine." His voice grows quiet. He looks at the floor for a moment, then finishes with, "Everybody was fine."