Training, good weather helped pilots survive crash off Hawaii Island

Training, weather may have helped pilots survive ditching off Kona
Sydnie Uemoto and David McMahon
Sydnie Uemoto and David McMahon
Timothy Steinmeier (Image: Hawaii News Now)
Timothy Steinmeier (Image: Hawaii News Now)
Captain Lindsey Evans, on right (Image: Hawaii News Now)
Captain Lindsey Evans, on right (Image: Hawaii News Now)
Captain Doug Bergwall (Image: Hawaii News Now)
Captain Doug Bergwall (Image: Hawaii News Now)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The survival story of pilots David McMahon and Sydnie Uemoto is being called miraculous, even by their fellow pilots.

But their co-workers also credit the commercial pilots' training and good weather for increasing their chances.

The Coast Guard says Uemoto landed the small twin-engine plane in the water Thursday afternoon, after sending out a distress call, while McMahon opened the door to make sure the water wouldn't trap them inside the aircraft. Both then grabbed life vests on their way out as the plane began to sink.

"If you're going to enter the water, you're going to crack the door a little bit, maybe use your shoe, prop it in there, so that you're not stuck inside," said Mokulele pilot Justin Clark, who has flown with McMahon several times.

On Friday, after nearly 20 hours in the water, the two were rescued about a mile and a half offshore Hawaii Island.

McMahon's friend, Timothy Steinmeier, said one of the vests had been damaged.

"They just kicked all night and half of his life preserver was punctured, so he had to keep a finger in the hole in order for it to stay inflated," he said. "He was holding that the whole time, helping the other female swim, too."

Mokulele Airlines Captain Lindsey Evans has flown with Uemoto as her second-in-commend several times. She said favorable weather conditions may have also given the two a better chance in the water.

"I flew that day, so I noticed the channel, that it was smooth," said Evans. "When it's smooth, you make note of it, because you're like, 'Oh, it's a great day, I'm going to enjoy this. It's not all whitecaps.'"

Both McMahon and Uemoto are pilots with Mokulele Airlines, but this flight was not for the airline.

Their Piper PA-23 dropped off radar about 3:15 p.m. Thursday, when they were about 25 miles northwest of Kona. U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Navy and New Zealand Air Force crews looked for the two by air and sea, combing miles of ocean off Hawaii Island.

It was on Friday morning that a tour helicopter spotted debris in the water and alerted authorities. Coast Guard rescuers rushed to the spot, where they found McMahon and Uemoto in the water, clinging to their life vests.

Evans recommended the use of Emergency Position Indicator Radio Beacons, also known as EPIRB's, or Personal Locator Beacons, or PLB's, to anyone who is flying over or sailing on the open ocean so that rescue crews can locate and spot people in an emergency. At the least, Evans said pilot and boaters should have red glow sticks, which are more visible to search crews using night vision goggles.

Mokulele Captain Doug Bergwall hopes others can learn from his colleagues' experience.

"We train for this thing, but how many people actually ditch in the water?" he said. "You don't practice actually crashing an airplane in the water. It's all a theoretical. But hopefully Syd and David can teach the rest of us and others."

Bergwall also noted that McMahon is a strong swimmer, and that Uemoto has a positive outlook. Pilots who have flown with them said that was another combination that helped them, giving them the will to survive and work together well.

""They landed successfully, obviously. They got out of the plane successfully, and they survived a night in the pitch black ocean while crossing a channel in a current," Bergwall said. "It's amazing. It's an amazing story."

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