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The pilots who crashed into the sea

BY Nicholas Hune-Brown

17th Apr 2023 Life

The pilots who crashed into the sea

Most people have an experience that forever changed their life trajectory; for pilots Dave McMahon and Sydnie Uemoto, it involved a plane crash, an ocean, and a shark

As her twin-engine Piper Apache sliced through the postcard-blue sky 5,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, 23-year-old pilot Sydnie Uemoto heard the sound—a subtle change in timbre as the engines began to strain and rattle.

Her co-pilot, 26-year-old Dave McMahon, heard it too. Up to that point, the two-hour flight from Oahu to the island of Hawaii had been uneventful. They were just two young pilots, strangers to each other, looking for flight time and taking a short trip with no passengers. When they heard the sound, shortly after three o’clock, McMahon brought the plane down to 3,500 feet, where the engines seemed to run more smoothly.

The pilots who crashed into the sea - close up shot of the pilots' cockpit where two pilots are sittingCredit: MatusDuda

Then, without warning, the pilots lost power to the right engine. A moment later, the left one went. Sitting in their metal compartment high above the ocean, they heard what every pilot dreads: an eerie quiet. It took them a moment to process the fact that they might crash.

"They were just two young pilots, strangers to each other, looking for flight time and taking a short trip with no passengers"

The next few minutes were a blur of activity. As they began to lose altitude, the pilots powered through the items on the emergency checklist—turning on fuel pumps, pushing the throttles to full—which can sometimes restart the engines. Nothing worked. Following their emergency training to a T, McMahon handed the controls to Uemoto and, fighting a rush of warm air, propped open the cockpit door. Now they wouldn’t get trapped inside after the expected marine landing. At about 1,000 feet and falling quickly, Uemoto made their last distress call. “We’re 25 miles northwest of Kona,” she said to air traffic control. “We’re going down.”

Uemoto gripped the controls. In pilot school, they teach you about ditching a plane, but you never actually practice dumping your ride into the ocean. She knew the chances of survival were slim. If she hit the water at too steep an angle, the force of the collision would kill them. If she allowed one wingtip to hit the water first, the plane could cartwheel uncontrollably and wrench the aircraft into pieces.

Just land as if you are landing on the ground, Uemoto told herself. As the plane hurtled toward the ocean, she forced herself to imagine a runway stretching along the choppy surface of the water. The air roared in her ears as the ocean rose to meet them. At the very last moment, with the Pacific filling her field of vision, she pulled back on the yoke, nudging the Apache’s nose up a little. Then everything flashed white as the plane made contact.

The pilots who crashed into the sea - a plane crashing into the waterCredit: BogdanV

It struck the surface with an explosive, shuddering impact, water spraying over the windshield as the aircraft plunged into the ocean. McMahon and Uemoto were thrown forward violently as if rear-ended by a tractor-trailer. In a daze, McMahon opened his eyes. He got his bearings and realized that he was, miraculously, okay. Uemoto was slumped next to him, shocked and bleeding but still conscious. Then McMahon felt the water pouring through the open door, and a new realisation hit him: They had to get out of there, fast. He unbuckled his seat belt and climbed out onto the wing.

“Sydnie, get out!” McMahon called. She looked at him blearily. With her hands on the controls, Uemoto hadn’t braced herself for impact and had slammed forward, breaking her nose.

She rose to her feet unsteadily and felt the blood pouring down her face, bait for the deadly sharks that prowl the waters around Hawaii. “Get out!” McMahon called again. The water was knee-high inside the plane, and in moments, she would be submerged.

“What about the sharks?” she said.

“You can’t think about that!” said McMahon. Uemoto trudged through water toward the door, picking up two life preservers along the way. By the time she had climbed out onto the wing, the water was covering the seats of the aircraft. As the plane sank, they jumped into the ocean. Within seconds, the plane disappeared beneath the surface. The ocean had erased all signs of human life except for the two small figures bobbing alone in the vastness of the Pacific.

As the waves broke around them, McMahon felt a strange sense of calm. He pulled the tab on his life preserver. The seal holding the CO2 cartridge fell off, leaving a gaping hole in the now-useless flap of plastic. But even that didn’t faze him. A laid-back Oahu native, he had grown up in the water—surfing, canoeing, and spending years on the swim team. He and Uemoto had done the impossible by surviving a crash landing into the ocean. It was a clear, beautiful day, and the Coast Guard knew where they were. Now they just had to stay put, treading water in the warm sea until they were rescued.

"The ocean had erased all signs of human life except for the two small figures bobbing alone in the vastness of the Pacific"

Uemoto, however, was a wreck—crying and terrified. McMahon tried to calm her, keeping the two of them turned away from the waves and making small talk. “Tell me about your family,” he said. “Do you have any siblings?”

“I have a sister,” she said between gulps of air. Family was the reason Uemoto had been on that flight. Just a few years into her career, the young pilot was intently focused on work— taking on as many flights as she could during the week and working as a baggage handler for Hawaiian Airlines on weekends. That night was Uemoto’s father’s birthday, but rather than take the whole day off, she had decided to work in the morning and then rent a plane to fly home that afternoon, getting in some of her required hours behind the controls of a multiengine plane. When her original co-pilot couldn’t make it, McMahon, who also wanted to log time on a twin-engine, agreed to join her.

“When will the Coast Guard get here?” Uemoto asked.

“They’re coming,” McMahon said. “We’re just going to float here.”

The pilots who crashed into the sea - portraits of pilots Dave McMahon and Sydnie UemotoCredit: Oliver Koning; Pilots Dave McMahon (left) and Sydnie Uemoto (right)

After a couple of hours, McMahon’s prediction seemed to come true. A Navy plane appeared in the sky, circling the area. It flew directly overhead as McMahon waved his life preserver, overjoyed at the sight. And then, without any sign of recognition, the plane continued on its way. Salvation had arrived, then shockingly disappeared over the horizon. Over the next several hours, plane after plane flew overhead, circling in search of the lost pilots. Each time, McMahon and Uemoto did what they could to be seen. And each time, the potential rescue plane continued its flight without spotting them.

As the sun grew dim, McMahon’s calm began to crack. He became scared. We are going to have to spend the night on the water, he thought. Uemoto saw the fear on his face. She felt the current shift direction, the waves moving southwest now. A Hawaiian native, Uemoto knew what all locals know: There is nothing south of Hawaii until you hit Antarctica, 7,400 miles away. She and McMahon made the decision quickly. They looked to the outlines of the volcanoes at Kailua-­Kona, 25 miles away, and swam toward them.

By about ten that night, Uemoto’s legs began to cramp, so she swam with her arms, letting her legs drag behind her. Soon enough, McMahon was faring even worse. More than eight hours on the water had left him exhausted. He, too, cramped up and began shivering uncontrollably in the breezy night air. While McMahon had been the one supporting Uemoto those first few hours, she now took over. Swimming on her stomach, she had McMahon wrap his arms around her knees. He rested his head on the back of her legs while they swam in tandem—Uemoto pulling the five-foot-six McMahon with her arms as he kicked. But even with that support, it slowly dawned on him: If we keep going like this, I’m going to drown.

“Sydnie, I need to stop,” he said.

Uemoto unhooked herself from McMahon, then faced him. In a desperate attempt to find some way to help, she examined his life preserver and found it had two separate air compartments. Both sides were deflated, but McMahon hadn’t tried the second CO2 cartridge. She gently tugged the tab and that half of the vest filled with air. Then it started to leak, and the second CO2 cartridge fell off. McMahon stuffed his fingers into the two holes where the CO2 cartridges had ripped through the plastic, forming a seal. By exhaling each breath into the air tube, he found he could keep his vest inflated on one side, providing just enough support to keep him afloat. He wrapped his free hand around Uemoto’s ankle and rested, gathering his strength, while she pulled them toward the shore. “Just hang on to my ankles,” she said.

As Uemoto swam, hour after hour, a feeling of calm came over her. The moon was bright, sparkling off the water and casting its light on the distant mountains. The two had begun as colleagues who had never exchanged a sentence, but in the quiet of the night, they had become partners. To be alone in the ocean was awful and terrifying. But to be with someone else— to feel another person’s comforting presence in the darkness— somehow made the ordeal bearable.

“Hey, Dave?” Uemoto said softly at one point. She hadn’t heard from him in a little bit.

“Hey, Sydnie,” he called back.

“You doing good?”

“I’m doing good.”

It was while they were still in this position, McMahon clinging to her legs, that Uemoto felt a flash of excruciating pain. She lifted up her arm. In the moonlight, she saw something white and silky clinging to her forearm, coming off in goopy pieces. Jellyfish. Within seconds, Hawaiian box jellyfish toxins can cause nausea, loss of consciousness, muscle problems, and difficulty breathing. And now, in her weakened state, Uemoto was ploughing through a swarm of them. Moments after the first sting, she felt the venom work its way through her body. Her heart felt as if it were beating more slowly. She gasped for air as her body cramped up, each muscle clenching. Then she fell unconscious. McMahon watched in horror as Uemoto seemed to fade before his eyes.

"To be alone in the ocean was awful and terrifying, but to be with someone else somehow made the ordeal bearable"

“Sydnie!” he yelled, desperately tapping her face. She was out cold, her body trembling. McMahon clutched her to keep her head above the surface, treading water and ignoring his couple of stings. “Sydnie, are you OK?” he said over and over again.

Uemoto’s eyes fluttered open. Her body relaxed. “I think maybe we should just take a break,” she said weakly. They floated for a few minutes. Then she said, “I am not hanging out with these jellyfish anymore.”

“Let’s get a move on,” McMahon said. He hooked himself back onto her legs, and Uemoto somehow found the strength to swim toward land once again.

When the sun rose that morning, the two pilots were greeted by a beautiful sight—the island of Hawaii, green and majestic, closer than they had dared dream. Despite the jellyfish and exhaustion, they had made remarkable progress overnight.

Throughout the morning, cute little black fish schooled beneath them, accompanying them on their journey. In any other circumstance, Uemoto thought, this would all be quite pleasant—the warm ocean water was so clear and blue, it felt as if you could see straight to the bottom. Suddenly, the cute black fish were gone, frightened off. Uemoto saw a shadow in front of them that made her breath catch in her throat.

McMahon saw it, too—a shark, about ten feet beneath the surface.

“What do we do? What do we do?” Uemoto asked, panicked.

“Just keep looking forward,” said McMahon. “Don’t splash, and just keep swimming.”

The shark circled them methodically. The predator was calm enough, McMahon told himself, and was likely just curious. It circled them for about 30 minutes, then disappeared. Half an hour later, it was back. Now McMahon’s stomach dropped. We survived a crash; we made it through the night, he thought. There’s no way this is going to end with a shark attack.

“What are you going to do if it comes close?” asked Uemoto.

“I’m going to kick it in the eye,” said McMahon evenly.

And then, as quietly as it had appeared, the shark swam off again, and Uemoto and McMahon were alone once more. They were ten miles from shore now, the details of the island coming into focus. They made a pact: They would be home by sunset. “Do you want to go out to eat afterwards?” Uemoto joked. “McDonald’s?”

The pilots who crashed into the sea - Coastguard rescue helicopter hovering aboveCredit: JoeGough

Just before noon, they saw the familiar orange shape of a Coast Guard helicopter. It whizzed overhead, just to their right, and the two of them waved their hands and tried to make themselves visible against the water. Just as before, the aircraft disappeared— another agonising near miss.

After almost 20 hours, Uemoto’s body was finally done. She had simply run out of power. At a certain point, after struggling for hours, your mind entertains an idea: What if I just gave up? She was reaching that point. Then Uemoto heard the whir of the helicopter again. “It’s coming!” she shouted.

“This is it, Syd,” McMahon said. “This is the one God sent for us.” McMahon and Uemoto waved frantically. The helicopter flew overhead and then banked toward them. They’d been seen.

Uemoto and McMahon burst into tears. They hugged in the water as the immensity of what they had survived suddenly hit them. Alone, either of them would have died. But together, they had made it. When one had been weak, the other had been strong. “You know, from not knowing you at all, you kind of surpassed all levels of friendship,” Uemoto told McMahon.

A second helicopter arrived ten minutes later, and a rescuer lowered himself into the ocean. He was followed by a metal rescue basket that was tethered to the helicopter. The rescuer guided Uemoto into the basket and, with a lurch, she rose into the air and toward the safety of the copter. Then it was McMahon’s turn.

Later—after the rescuers had fed McMahon every sandwich they had in the helicopter, after doctors had tended to Uemoto’s broken nose and jellyfish stings, after she finally got to say happy birthday to her father—McMahon and Uemoto, who have remained close, would recall an emotional turning point. It occurred maybe 30 minutes after they’d crashed into the water. Uemoto was panicked and teary, fearing the worst. McMahon began to comfort her, even though they’d known each other only a couple of hours. “We’re going to be good,” he had told her, though he had no idea what kind of journey was in front of them. “This is a story we’re going to tell our children and grandchildren.”

Banner Credit: Oliver Koning

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