My First And Only Water Landing

It wasn’t my fault, really. Well I did sort of give the situation a nudge towards a water landing in a non-amphibious P-2. So here’s how (ahem) it went down.

In a great piece of irony I played a game of acey-deucey (the Navy version of backgammon) for the privilege of copiloting this doomed aircraft just coming out of check. It was a pyrrhic victory.

During our take-off roll without enough runway remaining to abort, I saw someone running with extreme haste towards us waving a part in his hand. I didn’t yet know what was going on but surely this was not a good developement. I nudged the pilot to take a look. Uh, OK. We got airborne just fine and raised the landing gear. Uh oh. The right gear did not come up. Well, these things happen. We will just lower the gear and come back around and land. Oh shit god dammit. The left gear did not come down. Tried to manually pump the gear down. Nope. Went up to altitude and pulled g’s in several dives. Nope. Pulled off hydraulic system panels looking for a way to release the hydraulic pressure. Nope. Got on the radio and described the situation. Eventually the safety bureau in DC got a P-2 on jacks trying to figure out the problem. They knew that a hydraulic line was left off the right gear and that was why it could not be raised. But the left gear stuck up was a mystery. We flew around all afternoon looking for a solution. Meanwhile night was coming on fast.

Eventually we were told the runway would get foamed and they wanted us to land with one up and one down. It’s known that this plane usually breaks in half behind the wing in this situation with loss of crew. So I hollered at the pilot (avoiding use of intercom so as not to alarm the crew) that, WTF, let’s ditch this pig in the ocean. A controlled water landing is not near as dangerous. He agreed and relayed the request over radio. No, we were given a direct order to land on the runway. Unprintable expletives followed (mine).

The setup for this landing was to keep the two jet engines shut down due to fire danger, shut down the left recip as this one tends to spin the prop off into the fuselage in a crash, and come in on one engine. This aircraft can fly on one engine, but once dirtied up (gear and flaps down) it is going to come down. We took off our survival equipment to make egress easier. This aircraft does not have a door but a ladder up through the nose wheel well. It’s a tight fit.

As we approached the runway in the gathering darkness it’s obvious that they foamed the wrong runway. But there is only one runway!!!! The cross runway is very short, not lined up with the trade winds, and used only by helicopters. How could they make such a massive mistake with every senior experienced person on site with lots of time to figure it all out?

I had been seething over the whole order to land thing and kept my eyes open for some way out. The pilot poured on the power in an attempt to wave off and go around so they could have time to foam the correct runway. We were low, slow, still descending, and wallowing around. He directed me to get the jets on the line. What you need to know is that it takes a lot of electrical power to crank the engines instead of windmilling them (which takes too much time). More power than one engine can supply. In an instant of clarity I saw the way out (of landing on the runway). I hit the crank on both jets and the alternator tripped shutting down all electrical power. There would be no jet engine assist this time around. We wandered off course toward the tower (due to massive asymmetrical thrust at low speed) and I saw people diving out of the tower because they were worried we were going to plow into them. And we surely could have.

We passed the tower and mowed through several trees at the shoreline and crashed into the ocena with a tremendous impact. I was instantly wet up to my armpits with seawater. The right prop which had full power on when we hit had disintegrated. I popped the small hatch above to start climbing out and Rod was doing the same. At the last minute I ducked down and looked back at the crew. They were just sitting in their seats. I screamed at them to get out and they didn’t need to be told twice. The life raft had deployed automatically behind the wing so we carefully walked single file down the fuselage, slid down to the wing and got in the raft. 

Now this was the period just after the Navy decided that survival gear in rafts is not needed as crews are either found within 24 hours or not at all! Everyone was just sitting in the raft doing nothing. There was fuel all over the water. I said to start paddling and the retort was there were no paddles. “I don’t give a shit, use your hands”. Much splashing ensued with no progress. Hmmm. Even worse, the rear of the raft was sinking. I took a look and saw that the drogue chute was hung up on the sinking aircraft. Remember we had taken our gear off. Aha, but I alway had a folding knife in my leg pocket. I cut the line and we started making decent progress towards shore.

One of our most idiotic enlisted men in the squadron had beat through the salt marsh and was swimming towards us. I ordered him back to shore without affect. So I hollered that there was a shark heading for him. He went back to shore pretty darn quick. There was no shark that I knew of but the problem of dealing with an erratic individual was solved. Now we were standing on shore wondering what’s next and making sure everyone is OK. Quietly the pilot said something to the effect that that was a clever move of mine. I just smiled. I’m was thinking “fuck those bureaucratic, political, ass kissing pricks”. I was trying to stay alive and the difference between right and wrong was crystal clear to me. The pilot said to me that he will take whatever blame gets pushed our way. He was on his last tour before retirement and I didn’t want to see him get screwed. I said just play it straight. I was getting out soon and didn’t care if I caught some flak.

Eventually a helo was launched and came to pick us up. It took awhile because no one thought we would end up in the water.

Oh, the reason the left gear could not be lowered was that a hydraulic line had been installed backwards and got pinched when the gear raised thus trapping pressure that could not be released. That could not be determined until the aircraft was retrieved from the ocean.

I hope to hell that whoever caused the wrong runway to get foamed got punished, but it was a quirk that made it possible to land in the water. So thanks for that. There were so many screw-ups in this accident, but none of them were caused by the flight crew. I have to take one last jab. This happened during the tenure of a squadron commanding officer with particularly poor skills. He stupidly called Holly on the phone while I was airborne and told her I was up in a broken aircraft but that everything would be OK. 

STORIES

How crazy is it to be a Navy pilot?
My first and only water landing
Squeezing in a successful landing

Thanks for visiting.

— Ted Henry