Cirrus in the Water: Here’s What Happened

(Ilan Reich's account of his June 30th Cirrus SR22 chute deployment, in his own words. Written July 3, 2005.)

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Thanks for the huge outpouring ofsupport, good wishes and prayers from my friends. I wasdeeply touched by everyones sentiments, whether fromreading the COPA website, listening to voice mails orreading emails. I will try to answer each personindividually, but please understand if I dont.

I am writingto answer the common questions on everyones mind and toattempt to organize my own thoughts and emotions afterhaving gone through a very traumatic ordeal.

Many lessonscan be learned from my experience of surviving an airplanecrash, including:

Dont trustanything the news media publishes. Various inaccurate andmisleading reports had me: inexplicably parachuting out of aplane that already had its own parachute; losing control ina dive; coming dangerously close to a nuclear reactor; andactivating the chute because of mechanical problems. Noneof these is true.

Practice,practice and more practice. Maneuvers like recovery fromunusual attitudes, deploying the parachute, shutting downthe plane after any emergency, should be instinctive. Quitesimply, when things go awry theres no time to consult achecklist or the pilots operating handbook (POH). While inretrospect I didnt do everything right, I did get all ofthe important stuff right.

Dont fly asingle engine plane that isnt equipped with a parachute. Although the chances of actually encountering an emergencysituation that is worthy of pulling the chute are probablysmall to infinitesimal over the course of any given pilotscareer, the penalty for not having a parachute is almostcertain death. Each pilot has to establish and evaluatetheir own risk assessment criteria, but for me somethingthat has a greater than 50% risk of death, even if only 1%of the time, is an unacceptable risk. Thats why I bought aCirrus in the first place.

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Before Idescribe in minute detail what happened, heres a briefsummary. On the afternoon of Thursday, June 30 I wasincapacitated by a short seizure while being vectored for aninstrument approach. When I became alert again, the planewas descending at 204 knots, which is faster than redlinespeed. Following normal procedure I was able to recoverfrom this unusual attitude; an instant later I chose toactivate the parachute. On the descent, I steered theplane clear of a fuel tank farm, and crash-landed into thewater near Haverstraw, NY.

My injuriesare more severe than the cuts on the hand described in thepress. First, my back was broken by the impact of crashinginto the water. Thankfully I retain full body function andhave every reason to expect a complete recovery afterwearing a brace for the next month. Second, I have a benignbrain tumor, which has been growing undetected in the middleof my brain for many years and was apparently the cause ofthe brief seizure in-flight. Thankfully the tumor does notaffect my mental facilities in any way, and the risk offuture seizures is now being controlled by medication. Inthe coming weeks I will be discussing treatment options withvarious specialists: these include surgery or doingnothing. In either event, it is fairly certain that myflying days are over.

* * * * *

Now for thedetails..

I departedLincoln Park, NJ at approximately 4:20 pm. My plane wasthere for two weeks for its regular 50 hour inspection andan assortment of squawks, including new spark plugs after400 hours, replacement of the broken shear coupling on Alt2, cosmetic work on the leading edges and wheel pants, and anew fuel sender unit and gauge. The last item requiredemptying the tanks and then refilling them so that the newfuel gauge could be properly calibrated. This exerciseintroduces air into the fuel lines, so we spent a lot oftime running the engine on the ground to ensure that all theair was gone.

Thedestination was my home base at Westchester County Airport,NY (HPN): 35 miles and 12 minutes as the SR22 crow flies. Notwithstanding the short distance, I filed an IFR flightplan because the weather was hazy and the weather forecastfor HPN was predicting temporary cloud buildups starting at2,000 feet. As I climbed through 800 feet I contacted NYair traffic control and picked up my clearance: V39 BREZYintersection, Carmel VOR, direct; 3,000 feet. In quicksuccession I was handed off to the next controller, andcoming up at BREZY intersection I was told to expect the ILS16 approach at HPN. After BREZY intersection I was handedoff again, and that controller started to give me vectorsfor the final approach course: fly a heading of 080 degreesand maintain 3,000 feet. A few moments later I wasinstructed to turn an additional 20 degrees to the left andmaintain 3,000 feet. Incidentally, the visibility in theair was only 2-5 miles, so the decision to file IFR wascertainly prudent.

As I cameout of the turn to 060 degrees, I noted that my altitude hadslipped to 2,840 feet while I was busy changing frequencies,turning and loading the approach procedure into the Garmin. Apparently the plane was not trimmed properly, and Iconcentrated on climbing back up to 3,000 feet, whilecontinuing my scan and noting that everything was runningjust fine. Indicated airspeed was 160 knots, which isnormal for the cruise power setting then in use. Then Iblacked out for a period that I now estimate as being 5-10seconds.

When Ibecame alert again, I scanned the instruments and wasstunned to see the airspeed indicator showing 204 knotsindicated; the attitude indicator showing the nose below thehorizon; and the altimeter scrolling down quickly toward1,900 feet. I also realized that my right leg was weak, andthat the controller was calling, asking what happened to myaltitude. For non-pilots, the redline threshold is alsoknown as the never exceed speed, because the airframe wasnot designed to retain structural integrity above thatnumber. In other words, the wings can break off at anymoment.

Adrenalineshot through my body as I quickly and methodically executedthe procedure for recovering from this unusual attitude: level the wings, decrease power, and carefully lift the noseto avoid any further stresses on the airframe. Whileaccomplishing this I concentrated almost entirely on theattitude indicator, and after a few seconds I was satisfiedthat the loss of altitude had been reversed at roughly 1,700feet above the ground. I did not see the airspeed, althoughI knew instinctively that it was out of the red zone. Aftera fraction of a second of thought, I then activated theparachute. The factors that led me to this decisionincluded: no desire to proceed any further into marginalweather; concern over the loss of altitude; concern that theplanes structural integrity was compromised by the highspeed descent and recovery; and concern that the weakness inmy right leg might hinder my ability to control the planedown to the runway.

My parachuteexperience was quite different from what fellow COPA memberBill Graham described last month at M3. I heard the rocketlaunch and briefly smelled its fumes. A few seconds later Iheard a loud, ripping sound as the parachute reached fulldeployment. I then felt a tremendous jolt-worse than anyturbulence that Ive experienced-as the parachute billowedopen and caused the plane to decelerate. The POH advises130 knots indicated as the highest deployment speed for theparachute; but I have no idea what the airspeed was in mysituation. I suspect it was somewhere above 130 knots basedon the very different experiences that Bill and I had.

This jolttilted the airplane downward as the parachute established alevel position; it also threw my headphone and glasses invarious directions, and caused my head to hit the ceilingnear the visor. I have a very small bump to show for it;but that was the only injury from the parachute deployment. In my opinion the seatbelt retraction system and theparachute worked exceptionally well under the circumstances.

Afterfinding the headphone and realizing that the plane was nowlevel at roughly 900 feet above the ground and descendingstraight down under the canopy, the first thing I did wascall the controller on the existing frequency: I had notime to switch to 121.5; and saw no point in doing so sincethe controller was already urgently asking what was goingon. I said Mayday, mayday, 52 Lima here, pulled theparachute near the Hudson River. I believe that the secondthing I did was punch in 7700 on the transponder, although Ilater learned that my plane was already below radarcoverage. Inexplicably, I did not pull the mixture back toidle, as advised by the POH, and left the power lever justbelow the detent (roughly 19 inches MP). In the next minutethis would prove to be an invaluable deviation from what thePOH requires.

I looked outthe window and saw that the plane was descending directlyover a fuel tank farm for the nearby conventional powerstation (incidentally, Indian Point, which is a nuclearreactor, is located on the other side of the river, 5.-8miles upstream, and away from the vectors for the ILS 16approach course). This was now the scariest part of theflight: worse than emerging from a seizure to find theplane in a high-speed descent, because I already knew fromtraining how to handle that situation. But there is noadvice in the POH on how to control the plane once theparachute has been deployed.

Noweverything happened at warp speed. I called the controlleragain and said Mayday, 52 Lima is descending directly overthe fuel tanks. No response; and besides, there wasnothing the controller could do to help me. I then usedall available resources to change that outcome: I appliedright aileron and rudder, and rocked the power lever to makesure that the engine still had power. These actions causedthe plane to gently veer away from the tank farm and overthe water: Bowline Creek, a very wide, calm tributary tothe Hudson River near the town of Haverstraw, NY, a fewmiles north of Nyack and the Tappan Zee Bridge.

An instantlater the plane crashed straight down into the water, whichboth then and now I consider to be the lesser of two evils. It was like a massive belly flop. This was now the second,scary part of the flight, as water splashed up almost to thetop of the windows. Because I landed in water rather thansolid ground, the gear did not absorb much of the impact. Instead, the wings and seat did all the work. It was atthis point that the fourth lumbar vertebrae in my backcracked and compressed from the impact of the crash.

Then camethe very worst part: I could not open the door. The wingswere now sitting right at water level, which leads me totheorize that the doorframe or pins were deformed by theimpact of the crash. And upon impact, water immediatelycame into the cabin; in the three seconds it took me torealize that the door wasnt going to open, the water levelwas up to my ankles. More adrenaline shot through my body. I reached for the hammer in the armrest compartment, andwith two hands swung at the pilots window. Two whacks withall my strength and there was an eight inch hole. Steam wasnow coming out of the engine as the nosecone dippedunderwater and the cabin tilted forward, so I now rememberedto shut down all the switches and turn the fuel selector tooff. I ripped the lap board off my leg, reached behind myseat and grabbed one of the two life jackets thats alwaysthere. I then clawed apart most of the rest of the windowglass (which gave me some cuts and splinters) until the holewas big enough, and climbed out of the cabin. The wingswere now slightly under water; I sat down to put on andinflate the lifejacket.

I sat on thewing for a minute to survey the situation and collect mythoughts. The closest point to shore was roughly 300 feetaway, near the power plant. Several people were alreadyassembled there at a boat launch, and I spotted a police caralready driving in that direction. The parachute was flaton the water, mostly on the other side of the plane. Islipped into the water and began swimming to shore. My leggot caught on something: no doubt a line from theparachute. I kicked it free and swam faster and fartheraway from the plane. Within four minutes of impact, theplane was nose down in the water and sank in 30 feet ofwater. No fuel leaked out of the plane. In the next tenminutes I kept swimming slowly, but stopped after roughly150 feet. There was pain in my back and some blood on myleft hand. I was getting cold. A Haverstraw FireDepartment launch appeared about half a mile away, where thetributary joins the Hudson River. They came up beside meand sloppily pulled me onboard. The pain in my back was nowconsiderable, so I lay down flat across the deck. A momentlater the boat docked near the power plant, where anambulance was waiting to take me to Nyack Hospital.

Enroute tothe hospital, a police detective sat next to me and tooksparse notes of my story. The EMT folks stuck me full ofneedles for IV and blood tests; my body temperature was 90degrees, so they wrapped me in more blankets. I felt a hotspot on my rear end; it turned out to be the battery from mycell phone that was overheating from being underwater. Wearrived at the hospital and I was wheeled into the traumapart of the emergency room. They immediately cut off all myclothes (losing my keys in the process), poked more needlesinto me and did a quick check of my limbs and abdomen. Iwas then sent for a CT scan of my neck and brain; and laterfor X-rays of the rest of my body.

When all thetest results were in, the ER doctor came in and told me thatmy back was broken, and that the orthopedist would be thereshortly to explain further. He then left the room, but cameback a moment later and casually said: By the way, did youknow that you have a brain tumor? The neurologist will behere soon to explain it some more.

* * * * *

I walked outof the hospital on Friday afternoon. My back still hurts,mostly from the pressure of the brace that I have to wearfor the next four weeks whenever Im vertical. Im takinganti-seizure and pain medications and next week will consultwith neurosurgeons on what (if anything) to do about thebrain tumor.

Last nightwas the first time I was able to sleep through the nightwithout waking up several times, sometimes in a sweat; othertimes just to cry for ten minutes because I couldnt dealwith the emotions of how and why I nearly died, yet somehowmanaged to survive.

* * * * *

Unlike otherpeoples descriptions throughout history of near-deathexperiences, I did not see my life flash before my eyes; awarm glowing light; or any symbols of divine presence. WhatI saw were stark realities that needed to be dealt with: airspeed, jolts, altitude, fuel farm tanks, water, pain.

When theplane crashed and the cabin was underwater, and I couldntopen the door, I sadly thought: So this is how it ends. But I immediately determined to reject that outcome, grabbedthe hammer and clawed my way out.