FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Pilot Lyn Gray, left, and co-pilot Kristian Kauter arrived at the Coast Guard station at Sand Island yesterday on the Cutter Washington. The two had to ditch their plane in the Pacific on Thursday, 535 miles northeast of the Big Island, after encountering engine trouble. They were rescued by the Maltese-flagged container ship Virginius.
Plane's safe ditching was team effort, pilot says
The Australian pilot and co-pilot arrive safely in Honolulu
When pilot Lyn Gray stepped off the Coast Guard Cutter Washington at Sand Island yesterday, almost the first thing she did was hug Ray Clamback's neck.
Clamback owns the Australian company for whom Gray was flying a Piper Seminole from California to Sydney when engine trouble forced her to ditch the plane in the ocean 535 miles northeast of the Big Island on Thursday.
Clamback was piloting another plane making the same flight Thursday and radioed Gray with advice on ditching in the Pacific.
He should know -- he's done it twice, once in 1999 off the Big Island and again in 2004 south of Oahu, both times spending hours in the ocean before being rescued by the Coast Guard. Clamback's company, Clamback & Hennessy, offers flight training, charters and international ferrying of planes.
In Clamback's October 2004 incident, Gray was flying another plane in tandem with him en route to Pago Pago, American Samoa.
When his plane went down, Gray "circled him for three or four hours and alerted the Coast Guard," Sydney Morning Herald reporter Debra Jopson told the Star-Bulletin yesterday.
Thursday, Clamback was able to return the favor to Gray, standing by while she and her co-pilot Kristian Kauter were plucked from the ocean by the container ship Virginius within 15 minutes of ditching their ailing plane.
In a brief interview with media after coming ashore in Honolulu at 4:30 p.m. yesterday, Kauter praised Gray's skill in ditching the plane safely. "She did an amazing job," he said.
Gray pushed the praise aside, saying, "It was really team flying."
And, she said, they had some time to discuss what they would do if they couldn't make it to Hilo, a normal stop for refueling when ferrying planes to Australia.
Gray realized there was a problem about 1,000 miles after takeoff from Santa Barbara, Calif., she said yesterday.
"The left engine was using far more fuel than it should," she said, so she shut it down about 11 a.m. and informed the Federal Aviation Administration that she might not be able to make Hilo with the remaining fuel and one engine.
Gray and Kauter flew the plane 600 more miles on one engine before concluding that they weren't going to make it to Hilo, they said. By then it was about 4 p.m.
"We took the best option we had," Gray said. "It was daylight, there was a ship nearby and we had control."
Gray switched the problem engine back on for the ditching, to make the plane more stable, she said. Several commercial pilots and a Navy plane flying to Hawaii also offered advice as they flew nearby.
A Coast Guard C-130 plane from Honolulu dropped flares on the ocean to guide Gray to the best possible landing direction.
Gray and Kauter were wearing their life vests and positioned bags and cushions around them to soften the impact, they said.
"We knew we'd have to ditch somewhere," Kauter said. "My main concern was what the impact would do to us on landing. I was afraid we'd be knocked out."
They weren't, emerging from pre-opened escape exits within minutes of going down, a good thing since the plane sank within four minutes.
The pair spent less than 15 minutes in the water before being taken aboard the Maltese-flagged container ship Virginius. The Coast Guard had asked the China-bound ship to pick up the flyers since it was in the area.
The Virginius brought the pilots to within 12 miles of Oahu yesterday, where they transferred to the Coast Guard Cutter Washington and were brought to Honolulu.
Clamback, who safely landed his small plane in Hilo on Thursday, was on hand to welcome them ashore yesterday and help them arrange transportation back to their native Australia. He said he'll continue the delivery of the plane he's flying to Australia.
The Coast Guard has no problem with rescuing Clamback and his pilots three times now, said Coast Guard spokesman Petty Officer Brooksann Epiceno.
"It's their job to ferry the planes and it's our job to rescue people in distress," Epiceno said. "We don't put a price on life."