Vintage aircraft ditches in bay; Pilot OK and vows, ‘It will fly again’

Patrick J. Sullivan psullivan@ptleader.com
Posted 1/31/17

It’s common for aircraft to pass over Tom Madsen at his Port Discovery Seafarms operation on Discovery Bay, so he didn’t give much thought last Tuesday afternoon when a plane passed overhead, …

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Vintage aircraft ditches in bay; Pilot OK and vows, ‘It will fly again’

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It’s common for aircraft to pass over Tom Madsen at his Port Discovery Seafarms operation on Discovery Bay, so he didn’t give much thought last Tuesday afternoon when a plane passed overhead, although it did seem to him to be flying lower than usual.

His employee, however, could tell that something was amiss.

“[Chris Mahr] noticed the plane wasn’t making any noise; he watched it hit the water,” Madsen said. “He beat feet to get to our skiff and go down there, and by that time the pilot had swum to shore.”

Jeff Dow is a former flight engineer on cargo jets who now flies a commercial Boeing 767 cargo jet; he is also a flight instructor. He’s never had to make a crash landing of any kind. Dow owns a five-seat, single-engine Beech Staggerwing, built in 1937, which he keeps at Jefferson County International Airport. It’s about 24 feet in length, with a 32-foot wingspan. The fabric-covered fuselage is faired with wood formers and stringers placed over a welded, steel tube frame.

Dow told The Leader he was simply taking the Beech Staggerwing for a flight to warm it up after about two months of it being in the hangar. “These planes need to fly to stay in shape,” he said.

He fueled the aircraft, conducted the customary preflight checks and began a flight that took him over Port Townsend Bay to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and then to Discovery Bay on a return to the airport.

His altitude was about 900 feet heading east over Discovery Bay, and he was setting up for the landing pattern and waiting for a plane that was already in position for take-off. Suddenly, his engine died from apparent lack of fuel.

“It had fuel,” Dow said. “It was just an issue of getting fuel to the engine.”

The aircraft has both an electronic fuel pump and a mechanical fuel pump. Dow went through his standard operating procedures, twice, in an attempt to restart the engine. Fuel pressure did not return.

The biplane has a gross weight of about 3,600 pounds, with a fat, two-blade propeller that creates a lot of drag. He knew he would lose altitude, fast.

“At some point I had to stop doing procedures and land the airplane,” he said.

If his altitude had been at least 2,500 feet, he probably could have glided safely to the airport. But that was not an option, he said.

“I was over the bay heading east and there was nothing but trees in front of me,” he said. “My trajectory was not good.”

He turned south and kept the water in front of him, shoreline to his left. He intended to land as close to shore as possible, dictated in part by where his aircraft’s declining speed would take him. The water was calm, and no rocks were visible.

Dow has learned and even taught ditching procedures. With a water landing, it’s critical to put the plane level in the water, at a low speed but not low enough to stall, he noted. Should one wingtip touch before the other, the plane would likely cartwheel.

“With this airplane, a water landing is not a bad option,” he noted, thanks in part to having retractable landing gear and a lower wing.

He landed about 100 feet from shore. The aircraft came to a stop fairly quickly, the nose began to dip, and water entered the cockpit, he said. He opened his pilot’s door and exited the aircraft, swimming to shore in water of about 53 degrees.

He was standing on a rock when the two shellfish company men arrived on their skiff. They motored out to the airplane, tied ropes around the tail section, and pulled it to the beach.

“He was afraid of the plane sinking, so we went out and and hooked up to it and pulled it up on the beach,” Madsen said. The aquaculture company’s land base is located midway between Eaglemount and Anderson Lake Road, along the bay’s eastern shore.

Most of the aircraft was underwater, but it never completely sank. The plane has five fuel tanks and had plenty of fuel on board, which helped with the aircraft’s buoyancy.

“He did a really nice job,” Scott Erickson of Aurora Aviation, who assisted with the aircraft recovery, said of Dow’s emergency landing. “He had less than a minute before he had to land.”

Once the plane was tied off on the beach, Dow said, he went home and changed out of his wet clothes, then returned to the scene. A crane on the shellfish company’s property was used to hoist the plane onto land, and disassembly began. The engine was the first thing to be pulled, then the wings and the tail section. Most of the pieces were removed via truck, with the fuselage eventually towed to Dow’s airport hangar. He’s been pressure-washing everything to neutralize the saltwater.

The lower wing fairing took the brunt of the impact, Dow said. The lower wing was mangled badly, but it’s all rebuildable. Kits are available for new wings, which are made primarily of wood. The plane was rebuilt in 1990 with synthetic fabric, some of which will need to be replaced.

“It will fly again. It’s completely repairable,” Dow said. “They are such sought-after airplanes. People who own them feel more like caretakers. When I’m no longer flying, the plane still will be.”

EMERGENCY RESPONSE

Bill Beezley, East Jefferson Fire Rescue (EJFR) public information officer, said emergency responders received a report at 2:35 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 24 that a small, red aircraft had ditched in the southern part of Discovery Bay.

EJFR’s Marine 1-6 Guardian was dispatched to the call and was en route from Port Townsend when responders learned that the pilot had extricated himself from the aircraft and that the shellfish company skiff was on scene. Emergency responders drove to State Route 20 milepost 2.5 near Eaglemount, where the aircraft was seen offshore. The shellfish company’s access road was used to get emergency equipment near the accident scene.

The pilot appeared to be uninjured and declined medical help from EJFR, Beezley said.

RARE AIRCRAFT

The aircraft entered civilian service as an E17B on Dec. 18, 1937, according to information Dow had recently obtained. It was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942, and in 1943 was apparently loaned to Howard Hughes, an aviation company pioneer. The aircraft was returned to civilian use after the war. In 1987, an engine change converted the aircraft into an E17L. Dow has owned it since 2001.

The Beech Staggerwing was produced, in various versions, from 1932 to about 1950. A fast airplane, it was produced with the business professional in mind, according to history reports, and later became popular with racers. The Port Townsend Aero Museum has a similar Beech in its collection.

“It was the Learjet of its day,” Dow noted of the speedy plane’s use for business executive travel.

The Beech Staggerwing is described as having an atypical negative stagger (the lower wing is farther forward than the upper wing), with retractable landing gear, not common in a biplane. The wing design maximized the pilot’s visibility while minimizing the aircraft’s tendency to stall.

In March 2003, Plane & Pilot magazine named the Staggerwing one of its “Top Ten All-Time Favorite” aircraft. In the April 2007 issue of AOPA Pilot magazine, it was reported that the Staggerwing was voted by nearly 3,000 Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) members as the “Most Beautiful Airplane.”

ACCIDENT INVESTIGATION

A Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) inspector has already looked at the aircraft once, Dow noted. The FAA investigation at some point would be turned over to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The sole objective of the board’s investigation of an accident or incident is the prevention of accidents and incidents, and not to apportion blame or liability, said an NTSB spokesperson. The investigation typically examines operations, airframe structure, power plants, systems, air traffic control, weather and human performance.

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