It was noon on November 27, 1994, I was standing in my kitchen drinking a glass of water and listening to our Radio Shack scanner as it blasted out the usual electronic garbage. Fishermen were comparing snowmobiles, complaining about not catching any lobsters, talking about the latest football game, and generally cluttering up the airwaves. A deputy sheriff was trying to get directions to a house in Cushing where somebody had reported a dead raccoon in the road. Finally the scanner was able to unlock from one of the idle chatter channels and scan to Marine VHF channels sixteen and twenty-two. These are the two frequencies where one is most likely to hear emergency traffic. The mention of an aircraft being down in the water got my attention. At first I thought the coordinates being talked about were down off Mt. Desert Isle or at the very least, a long way from home. My wife, Mary, walked into the other room where I keep my VHF transceiver and tuned it to channel twenty-two. We soon realized we were not listening to another hoax. There actually was an aircraft down and it was some distance out to sea beyond Matinicus Rock. My interest grew as it became clearer the plane was still afloat and the Coast Guard was going to leave the area to bring the pilot ashore. The pilot of the Coast Guard rescue helicopter on scene had been informed the downed pilot would not need to be medevaced, so the helicopter was returning to its base on Cape Cod.
I picked up the phone, called the Rockland Coast Guard Station, and asked the Officer of the Day what their plans were for the aircraft. He said they had none and were discussing what to do about it. He added that the plane was a hazard to navigation in its present state. I told him I would leave immediately to locate it and tow it in. He gave me the coordinates and asked if I would keep them apprised of the situation. I agreed to call them on channel twenty-two every half hour or so, or whenever the situation changed. The OOD also asked me how many people were going with me. I told him I would go alone if I had to, but I hoped to have one other - I would keep them advised.
My lobster boat, the Viking, is pretty slow. If you threw it out of an aircraft it might do eleven knots, so I wanted to find somebody willing to go with me who had a faster boat. Everyone I attempted to reach by phone was out hauling their traps or otherwise unavailable. I didn't want to call anybody on the radio as it might tip my hand as to what I was planning to do. I needed, at the very least, somebody to go as a crewman just as an extra hand. With no luck finding a faster boat. Mary suggested I take my boat, the Viking, and for crew, take Ed Sleeper. We both knew instantly he would be the best man to have along. Ed had been in tight situations himself once or twice and would be able to make decisions under pressure. Colonel Ed Sleeper is a retired Air Force Command Pilot who has flown nearly a thousand combat missions, and also president of the local flying club. He was the adventurous type, would be able to endure long hours of boredom and knew a lot about aircraft of all types. Mary called him and he told her he was on his way.
In the battle against approaching nightfall, I loaded my cellular phone, binoculars, drysuit, (in case I needed to get into the water to secure the plane), a face mask, some food, and my video camera into the truck and drove to Atwood's Wharf at Spruce Head Island. I rowed out to the mooring, and brought the Viking in alongside the wharf. In a few minutes Ed drove up and we got under way. As we pulled away from the float at Atwood's Wharf the Coast Guard announced gale warnings over channel 22 of the VHF.
By now it was a little after 1300. As soon as I punched the coordinates of the plane's last known position into my $200 Loran it became very clear that we had at least a three hour run and only three hours of daylight left. That was, if everything went as planned and I could steam at top speed. My top speed was a little over eight and a half knots. Needless to say, on the trip out we would have plenty of time for planning. So with a roll of popcorn cakes, two sodas, and a thermos full of black coffee, we got under way. My goals were pretty simple. Take everything a step at a time and not get upset if things went all to hell at some point.
About seven miles outside Matinicus Rock, we spotted a large tanker or container ship hull down on the horizon. She was heading southwest. I called her on channels sixteen and thirteen to no avail. I wanted to ask the skipper to check his radar for other targets so we could plot the position of the aircraft - providing it was still afloat. No such luck. Somewhere in the conversations with the Coast Guard we determined the plane was a Lake Amphibian. That was all we knew about it. We had no idea how much damage it had sustained during ditching.
We continued out fifteen miles past Matinicus Rock on a south-southeasterly course. As we approached the coordinates of the last known position, I called Southwest Harbor Coast Guard and asked them what the on scene weather had been at the time of ditching. The radio operator said the wind had been NE at approximately fifteen knots. Now it was blowing SW. We wondered how long it had been blowing in this direction. The decision now was to go NE or SW. I put on my best Star Wars Obi Wan Canobi imitation and told Ed we should let "The Force" guide us. We decided to steam along the present track, which was 160 degrees magnetic, for another two miles. Then we would come right to a heading of approximately 240 degrees magnetic. I felt this would take us on a path that might intersect that of the drifting aircraft. We might luck onto it during our slow turn back to a homeward bound heading.
The sun had set at around 1550 and the time now was 1700. It was one of those red sunsets that lead a mariner to believe there is bad weather coming. We had only a thin red line marking the horizon and a very limited intensity of ambient light. Although the Coast Guard had left a strobe light on the plane, we could see no strobe flashes in the encroaching gloom. Ed and I felt we had taken a long boat ride for nothing and were considering heading back in as soon as we had run down the track on a bearing of 240. We would steam until total darkness had set in - probably another twenty minutes at the maximum. The fact gale warnings were up and the wind had not dropped off as it usually does at sundown had us somewhat concerned. We were pretty sure we were in for a blow.
Ed was now at the helm and I was standing on the starboard rail scanning the horizon to westward through my Steiner binoculars. We ran a couple miles on the 240 course and I spotted something at a distance. It was a small object jutting occasionally above the the thin line of red now marking the horizon. I told Ed to stay steady on course, and I kept looking at the place where I thought I had seen the object. After a few minutes it appeared again. It looked like a piece of a dock or something, but certainly not a plane.
Soon it became apparent we were approaching the object of our search. We moved closer until we could discern the aircraft in the fading twilight floating like a wounded sea bird with the left wingtip in the water and the right wing in the air. We were afraid it was sinking and we'd be helpless to prevent it. I had rigged a hand bilge pump to a long piece of hose, but we didn't dare open the cockpit to insert it due to the chance of swamping the plane. We didn't know how stable the aircraft was and feared any extra weight might cause the wrong effect. The strobe the Coast Guard had tied to the plane had slid down off the nose and was now under the nose wheel well. The Coast Guardsmen had clipped two light sticks to the plane and they were glowing green, but would not have served any purpose fending off potential collisions. They did, however, help us during the tow in as we could simply glance astern and see if the plane was tracking straight behind the Viking.
We approached the plane from its nose and I hung over the side attempting to get a line around the partially extended nose wheel flopping around in the wheel well. I was hanging over the side of the Viking and a swell lifted the plane and brought it toward me. The nose fender of the plane struck my boat on the starboard side tearing off the rubrail, but after a number of tries, I managed to fasten a choker around the wheel. We took a strain and headed for Matinicus Rock.
I nudged the Viking ahead at 1,000 RPM and noted my speed indicator on my loran. We were making about two knots, and that was the highest speed for the entire trip. My loran told us we would be inside "The Rock" a little after midnight. The plane was difficult to tow as its port pontoon was entirely under water. It kept veering off to port, causing the helmsman to compensate continuously for the uneven drag. We kept checking the plane to insure it was not in immediate danger of sinking. At this time we had no idea how badly it was leaking. We also wanted to avoid placing too much strain on the nose gear. Right now we had an airplane. We knew if it went under water, even if we didn't lose it, we'd have little more than scrap aluminum on our hands.
The plan was to tow the plane to Criehaven Harbor and tie it to a mooring. Gale Warnings had been issued soon after our departure from Spruce Head Island, and by the looks of things and the sound of weather reports I felt it wouldn't be long before they would be upgraded to Storm Warnings.
We maintained our communication schedule with the USCG in Southwest Harbor. They advised me the FAA had requested the plane be towed into Rockland. Ed and I looked at each other with an expression one could only interpret as, "Just who in hell do these guys think they are?"
My response was not in the affirmative nor phrased in polite language. The only comment from the Coast Guard in reference to my remark was, "Roger that Captain, we concur."
The poorly charged battery pack in my cellular phone had died after a few calls, so I called my wife, Mary, through the Camden Marine Operator and told her of our progress. I told her we would be taking the plane to Criehaven Harbor and asked her to call Ed's wife and bring her up to date on the situation. Mary asked if I would like to have Buzzy and Kriston Kinney come out so there would be a diver on station in the event one was needed. I agreed. Buzzy is a lobsterman who has fished for years from Criehaven. He has a camp and wharf there as his base of operations. His son, Kriston, is a competent diver and a good man on the water. Mary called Kriston and learned Buzzy was in New Hampshire visiting his daughter for the weekend. Kriston called him. He said he'd head right home. It would be at least four or five hours before we'd need them so there was plenty of time for him to drive up from New Hampshire.
I didn't have my scuba gear and felt it would be reassuring if Kriston came equipped to dive if we got into a flooding situation with the plane. Buzzy, Kriston, and my sixteen year-old son Erik left Spruce Head for Criehaven around 2200. Erik was supposed to be in school the next day, but Mary figured this would be as good an excuse for missing school as any kid could have. Also Erik is a good boat operator, diver, and is very handy on the water. Being quite rugged for his age, and usually enthusiastic about working, he is a welcome addition to any crew.
Ed plotted a good rendezvous point on the chart where we could conveniently meet with Buzzy's boat, the Miss Hanna. I called Buzzy with the coordinates. He agreed and steered the Miss Hanna for a spot on the chart where two loran lines crossed below the Southwest Point of Criehaven. From here we could line up for a straight shot into Criehaven Harbor. The rendezvous point was one that would enable us to miss all the submerged obstacles on the way in. With the weather deteriorating and the darkness as complete as it gets, we didn't want to run aground. As we made the turn by the rendezvous point, the northeast wind began to pick up strength.
Buzzy met us at the predetermined point and led us into the harbor. We secured the plane on a mooring near his wharf. This is on the western side of the harbor where the plane would be in the lee from the easterly winds that were increasing by the minute. The time was nearly 0300 when we had the plane secured. Gale warnings had bee upgraded to storm warnings and the easterly wind was whipping the sea into whitecaps, even inside the harbor. Our timing couldn't have been better. The five of us headed for Buzzy's camp, the Rackatash Retreat, on the wharf in Criehaven Harbor.
The cups of hot coffee served up by Buzzy inside the warmth of the island camp were very welcome after we had been taking turns at the helm for over twelve hours. The crew turned in soon, but sleep was a luxury. Any slight variation in the sound of the wind whistling outside, or any difference in the pattern of the asphalt shingles slapping against the roof was cause for one of us to roll out and take a look at our charge. Sometimes two of us would wake up simultaneously at the same change in sound patterns. We walked through the slush to the end of the wharf many times that night, flashlight in hand. Every time we looked, nothing had changed. The plane was setting there in the water much like a gull with a broken wing. In spite of our concerns the plane rode out the night in relative calm as it was totally in the lee from the strong Northeast snowstorm.
We all awoke before daylight that same morning to the staccato beat of rain and sleet being plastered against the east side of the Rackatash Retreat. Stepping outside onto the wharf was a wet and cold experience and would have been avoided except for our valuable prize hanging on a length of polypropylene. There were many anxious moments while we decided if it was necessary to go aboard the aircraft to check for leakage. We finally agreed the plane looked lower in the water than it had the night before. So we rowed out and removed whatever wasn't nailed down from the aircraft. We were careful not to damage the interior in the process, with the exception of the floorboards in the back seat. We had to tear down through them to get to the bilge to pump out the water. After a spell of pumping, we decided the plane was in no danger of sinking right away. We went ashore and spent the rest of the day postulating as to how salvage laws really worked. The plane was a 1992 Lake Amphibian Renegade 250. We had called an airplane dealer and he told us a new one booked for over $400,000. The Hobbs hour meter on our catch read 142 hours. The plastic seat protectors were still on the seats. She was just like new. Over Buzzy's cellular phone Mary had informed me she was in the process of filing a Federal Salvage lien on the aircraft through the FAA in Oklahoma City. It turned out Maine is one of the few states where a salvage lien can be filed on an aircraft.
That afternoon Ed went aboard the aircraft and pumped it out again. By figuring the rate of influx of the water, we agreed most likely the plane would be OK for the night.
By the morning of the second day on Criehaven, the wind had come around to the southwest and was gusting to around thirty-five to forty knots. It was now blowing almost straight at the breakwater on the southern side of the harbor. Seas were breaking over the man made breakwater throwing spray twenty feet into the air. The stone structure did its job and the harbor was relatively calm. The plane was as light as before. But the longer we watched it, the more we imagined it had become soggy and had sunk lower into the water. Eventually, we agreed that it probably was sinking and should be pumped out again. Upon arriving at the plane, we discovered that only a few inches of water had come in, but it was most likely the ungainly posture of the plane that caused us the concern, due to the high winds whipping against the plane. Aboard the Miss Hanna Buzzy took Ed, Kriston, and Erik over to Matinicus Island, a distance of about a mile. They caught a flight ashore to Owls Head Airport with Penobscot Air Service. Kriston had a dentist's appointment and a tooth that reminded him not to miss it, and Erik needed to return to school. What he had thought to be a day off had, in fact, been called off as a snow day for the rest of his classmates. Ed was going ashore to get some groceries and make some calls. Later that afternoon I stayed in the plane and pumped it out again while Buzzy made the run over to Matinicus to retrieve Ed.
By the end of the third day on Criehaven and after many calls to the mainland via UniCel, we were ready to make a move. Mary had been talking to lawyers and insurance adjustors and had put a neat package together. She even received a call from the pilot, a man by the name of John Earl, who by the way, was on board a transatlantic flight even before we had even taken the aircraft in tow. He had been ferrying the plane from England to Boston via St. Johns, Newfoundland. He intended to catch a commercial flight back to England from Boston, but not under these conditions. Another ferry pilot had been hired to take over and deliver the plane to its purchaser in Texas. At this point we didn't know why the aircraft had gone down.
When Mary had called the insurance company in the United Kingdom, they were hardly aware they had lost an aircraft. I received a call from an aviation insurance adjustor in New York. He tried to pin me down on my costs for bringing the plane in. I told him I couldn't give him a hard number. He insisted that he needed a number to tell his client so that it would not double or triple before the project was over. I informed him when I arrived at a number it would be large enough that he would not have to worry about it increasing. I also mentioned if they didn't quit screwing around, the weather would take care of it for them and they wouldn't have to worry about the damn thing. He didn't have much to say after that.
Our contract was finalized and not unreasonable. We felt it would be approved and things would get under way in short order. They did. In spite of the insistence that I could easily move the plane to Rockland without further damage, Prock Marine of Rockland was tasked by the insurance company with the job of bringing the plane into Rockland. After some discussion we realized this was probably the best move as it would remove us from any situation where we would be responsible for further damage to the plane. We'd babysat the thing long enough. Now it was time for somebody else to take a turn. Mary had set up the contract so that as soon as the plane came off the mooring, we were no longer responsible for it and were guaranteed payment. Prock would have full responsibility and we would get paid the agreed amount no matter what happened to the aircraft after that.
The Prock tug, with barge in tow, arrived with Phil Baker from Lake Aircraft on board. Phil is the maintenance director for Lake Aircraft. It was his job to insure the aircraft was handled properly during loading and transporting back to Rockland. We explained to everyone just how we were going to move the plane. All went well with the lifting of the plane out of the water and slinging it aboard the barge. I felt we had had a good operation and things had gone quite well. Ed and I headed back for the mainland in my boat, and Buzzy came along behind in the Miss Hanna. We had passed Matinicus Island and were heading for Home Harbor off Two Bush Channel, when the skipper of the Prock tug, Dorothy L., called me and asked if I had my diving gear aboard. I looked over at Ed and rolled my eyes. I knew why he was calling. When the tug and barge had entered the harbor I had warned the crew about the groundline that the lobstermen attach their moorings to. The groundline is a length of one and one quarter inch nylon that stretches between two chains bolted into ledges on either side of the harbor. The fishermen attach the pennants of their moorings to it. The bottom in the harbor is mostly sand and regular granite moorings slide around in bad weather and won't hold ground.
As I said before, I didn't have any diving gear aboard except my drysuit and fins. Buzzy broke in on the VHF and said he still had Kriston's gear aboard. He had a scuba setup, a mask, mitts, and a weight belt. Both of us turned our boats back for Criehaven Harbor to evaluate the problem.
This particular groundline had four moorings on it. The tug had severed it between the chain of the west end and Anson Norton's boat. I jumped into the water and wore out two little red Victorinox knives clearing the tangled, knotted mass of nylon. The crewmen on the tug gave Buzzy and Anson some nylon rope and they went back to the break,where they had buoyed off the broken end of the groundline. Then Ed, Buzzy, Anson, and I, with the help of a little sweat and a rusty come-along, stretched the rope as far as we could until it could be made fast into the chain just off the western shore of the harbor.
It had been good luck for the Dorothy L. that Charlie Stone,a Criehaven lobsterman, had been aboard his boat in the harbor when they tangled with the groundline. Charlie had pulled the tug away from the ledges. He could not move it far, due to the crippled nature of the tug with the rope holding it securely to the ledges, but he managed to get it far enough away so the crew could drop an anchor and hold the tug away from the ledges.
I managed to remove a major portion of the rope from the port screw. There was a large volume of lobster pot warp in both propellers from past entanglements. I removed about half of this multi-colored rope and slashed the rest repeatedly so it would spin free when the tug got under way. As soon as the tug was clear, the crew hooked up the barge and headed for Rockland. The rest of the trip was uneventful and the plane was unloaded without damage. Buzzy, Ed, and I stayed and helped reattach a new piece of nylon into the groundline. When this was finished we got underway for Spruce Head. On the way in I got a call from the Coast Guard in Rockland to see if I could swing down around Metinic Island and help some urchin diver whose boat had broken down. At this point my fuel state was getting very low, so I declined their offer.
The plane sat on Prock's wharf until Tuesday of the following week as the Customs people would not release it until they were on site to inspect it as the wings were removed. The head of maintenance of Lake Aircraft said he could most likely have the plane back in the air for around $15,000 or $50,000 if the customer wanted it like brand new. Not bad considering what it would have cost them had we not chosen to gamble with the weather and pure luck.
Postscript: As it turned out, all our guesses as to why the plane had gone down were wrong. We surmised it had been run out of oil. As it turned out there had been some sort of icing problem from water in the fuel.There was no way that anything could have been done by the pilot to avoid ditching. It was most fortunate it happened close to somebody that could help, in this case the Rockland Coast Guard.
Note: During the past ten years since this story was written, Ed Sleeper and Kriston Kinny have both died. Ed was stricken with a very agressive form of leukemia and passed on within a few days. Kriston died in an automobile accident.