[Quick note: This post is a story about an airplane crash and has images and video of the crash. The story has a happy ending, just wanted to say make that very clear in case someone out there is sensitive to that sort of content]
There’s something to be said for having the presence of mind to pilot a private plane. Airplanes are very complex machines and it takes countless hours to be certified to fly one properly.
There’s also something to be said for having the presence of mind to keep everything cool, calm, and collected when things go wrong in the air.
And, even further, there’s even more to be said for the presence of mind for keeping everything cool when your engine dies…over the ocean.
And, from a social media standpoint, there’s far less serious things to be said for having the presence of mind to film the whole thing.
Here’s what happened
A private pilot from Colorado, David Lesh, was doing some formation flying with a friend (formation flying is flying alongside another aircraft, you know, in formation) off the coast of San Francisco so his friend could take some aerial shots of Lesh’s new Bonanza plane. Suddenly, the engine died.
Now, it needs to be said that pilots train for the engine suddenly cutting out in flight all the time. There are procedures and checklists for diagnosing the problem and restarting the engine and it usually restarts and can provide enough power for an emergency diversion to an alternate airfield. Planes inherently glide well even when they’re not powered, usually giving the pilot enough time to fix the issue in the air before crashing becomes a concern.
Well, nothing Lesh tried worked. He tried everything he could. Once it was clear he was going to set it down in the ocean, he made some decisions about speed, flaps, and landing gear, wanting to try and keep the plane from flipping over as best as he could.
This was the result.
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Experienced an engine failure off the coast of San Francisco today during a photo formation flight, had to ditch into the ocean. Bobbed around getting hypothermia and stung by jelly fish for 45min. Huge thanks to the @uscg and @sjcspotter for coordinating the rescue, stoked to make it out without a scratch. Check the news for video coverage.
I’ll post a link to a great explanatory video put together by Matt Guthmiller, a YouTuber pilot who I follow, which explains the whole thing in detail and has the actual video of the crash taken from the other plane in formation, piloted by Owen Leipelt.
The details of the rescue are actually quite fascinating. Lesh managed to skip the plane across the surface of the ocean, which was luckily very calm. As Lesh and his passenger exited the aircraft they had the presence of mind to grab the seat cushions to be used as floatation aids (Lesh would later say in the future he will never fly over open water again without life jackets) and also grabbed his cell phone, which he used to video the rescue and stay in contact with Leipelt. Grabbing the things they did was crucial, as the plane quickly sank after that. At one point, Leipelt lost Lesh and his friend, but luckily Lesh was able to guide him back via phone (which just underscores just how hard it is to see two human beings in an ocean. In order to keep his eyes on the downed passengers, Leipelt had to fly very close to the ocean, below both radar range and radio range. Every once in a while, Leipelt would ascend above 500 feet so the Coast Guard could see him on radar and he could check in with them while they were scrambling a rescue team.
Ultimately the story has a very happy ending, as Lesh and his passenger were rescued successfully by the US Coast Guard and without much ill effect (aside from some mild hypothermia and some jellyfish stings).
For a complete and total retelling of the incident, check out Matt Guthmiller’s excellent video below:
Oh, and a quick note about some accusations thrown at the pilot
Some people have criticized Lesh, noting that he has a reputation on Instagram for doing things “to the extreme” and pushing the limits. Some have gone as far as to accuse him of doing this as a publicity stunt. I mean anything is possible I guess but a plane crashing is always a very serious incident. People do not crash planes for fun. Especially pilots with 1000+ hours, they know how serious any sort of incident could be. And they especially wouldn’t do so with a passenger. “Well why was he filming it then?” They were doing an air-to-air photoshoot, and this guy already puts a lot of his life online anyway, it’s not a stretch at all.
Props (or prop, I guess to be more literal) to David Lesh for executing a near-flawless ditching and to the US Coast Guard for a quick and successful rescue. I’m sure we’ll see more information about this after the NTSB completes their investigation and I’ll be sure to update you if anything new or interesting comes from this story.