Missing and Feared Gone

Pilot ditches in Lake Huron

March 1, 2012

Illustration by PJ Loughran

He had been in the water 17 and one-half hours now, treading and swimming without a life preserver, and the night had been an ordeal. With the darkness had come the wind, and with the wind had come the waves and the cold that give Lake Huron its frigid reputation.

Overhead the night sky had been beautiful, clear, and full of stars, and he could see the chimney stacks from the factory at Harbor Beach, Michigan. But swimming toward them had proved futile. He had paddled to within perhaps two and one-half miles of shore, but the current would not allow him to get closer. He had even sighted what appeared to be a lighted buoy only several hundred yards away. If he could swim to it, he could hang on until daylight and surely someone would spot him. But his efforts to reach it were unsuccessful. The current was unyielding.

At dawn there had been another moment of hope. The seas had calmed, and three men in a small fishing boat had motored out from the harbor, passing within 100 yards as he treaded water. He had shouted and waved furiously, until he was exhausted and choking on the water in his throat, but they didn’t see or hear him and proceeded casually on their way.

In all, 13 boats had passed him by, including a freighter, a commercial fishing trawler, and a sailboat; but invariably the eyes of the crews were elsewhere. And the rescue effort—where were the search boats and airplanes? He had long since shed his trousers and shoes to stay afloat and had wrapped one of his socks around his hand, together with a credit card in the hope that waving it might attract someone’s attention.

Now the feeling in his hands and legs had gone, and his body had begun to constrict into the fetal position. Staying afloat was no longer the priority it had been. His strength was fading. The will to survive was leaving him. He was cold and nearly exhausted. The idea of simply going to sleep and letting his mind and body drift off to someplace warm was becoming more and more inviting.

Flight plans

Mike Trapp, 42, of Gouverneur, New York, was headed for Wisconsin. His intended destination was Eau Claire to attend a family reunion with his mother and father. He had planned to depart Hendricks Field (NK16) Wednesday, July 27, 2011, but the forecast of bad weather in Wisconsin made him alter his plans. In order to fly VFR, he would leave a day earlier. So he hurried home, grabbed some lunch, packed a bag, and kissed his wife. He would take off at noon.

The 1966 Cessna 150 lifted off the runway on schedule, and the next three hours of the itinerary were routine, with the airplane flying comfortably along at 3,000 feet, passing across western New York; then Ontario, Canada; then out over Lake Huron.

About 30 miles off the Michigan shore, the airplane’s engine began to sound troubled. Trapp tried to restore power, but the airplane continued to lose altitude. He enriched the mixture, adjusted the throttle, and moved the fuel selector. Nothing helped. The surface of the lake loomed dangerously close.

Alarm bells were going off in Trapp’s mind. He radioed ATC at Lansing, told them his situation, gave his location, and warned that he was likely “going in.”

The aircraft continued to lose speed and altitude until it reached its stall speed of 48 mph, just above the water. Ironically, the engine began to regain power just before the crash. But it was too late. The airplane went in violently, perhaps five or six miles off Harbor Beach, and sank to the bottom—in nearly a hundred feet of water. The response to his mayday was lost in the crashing water. It was 4:12 p.m.

MissingThe ditching

The Cessna had gone in hard, tripping over its own wheels as they hit the water, then cartwheeling upside-down with such force that the windshield was ripped away and a flood of cold water hit the pilot squarely in the face. Within seconds, both airplane and pilot were under water. Fortunately, moments before ditching, he had remembered to unlatch the door on his side of the airplane to prevent the fuselage from jamming the door on impact. The seatbelts, too, had fortunately held, and, as he recovered from the violence of the crash, there was just enough time to free himself and swim through the open doorway to the surface.

The pilot broke the surface of the water, gasped in precious fresh air, and immediately swam to the Cessna’s tail, which was still in sight. He grabbed hold of the structure as it began to sink. His life preserver and cell phone were inside the airplane.

He watched as the wings and fuselage of the airplane descended into the depths—20, 30, 40 feet—until they were no longer visible. “Bye, girl,” he muttered.

Trapp was in full panic mode. The waves were up and he was treading water fast, working and breathing hard—too hard to remain afloat for long. He kicked off his shoes and removed his trousers. Back in the Navy, he had been taught to inflate trousers into a makeshift life preserver by tying knots in the pant legs and forcing air into them. This he did, but the waves were too strong and pushed the pant legs around his neck, threatening to choke him. Gagging and vomiting, he abandoned the trousers. Then he had another thought and swam back to them. He retrieved his wallet, removed his left sock, and placed the wallet and its contents inside the sock.

Despite the situation, an ironic thought had occurred: He had just survived an airplane crash only to be confronted with drowning. Well, if that happened and someone found him, he would at least let them know who he was. He stuffed the sock and the wallet with his ID inside his shorts. He also vowed not to give up without a fight. He had a wife and children, family, friends, a race car, an auto repair business to run.

And so he struggled to live: treading water, dog-paddling, floating on his back with his chin on his chest to shield his mouth from the waves, all through the afternoon and the long night that followed. The offshore water was cold, but the daytime temperatures had been in the mid-90s, so there were warm currents at times and he sought them out, luxuriating in their brief comfort. Was anyone searching for him? He had seen no searchlights, heard no helicopters.

At about 10:30 the next morning, with his ears and much of his head underwater, he heard it: the high-pitched whine of a powerboat. It was getting louder, coming his way. He swam with all his remaining strength back out to sea, in the direction of the sound. And then he saw it: a big, white sport fishing boat, headed north and running fast, but not that far away. He kicked furiously at the water, trying to propel his body as far above the surface as he could to make himself visible. And each time his body rose, he waved the arm with the sock until he could kick and surface no more. The engine and propeller whine was all around him now, and he could see the massive wake from the Viking’s hull just a few hundred feet to the east as it powered along. Surely they had seen him. They had to see him. They had to. But now the sound was beginning to diminish. The boat was continuing on course. Oh, God, it was going away. No, no! They hadn’t seen him. It was over.

And just then the sound began to change. The engines were slowing. The boat was reducing speed. He stared in suspense as the boat began to change course, swinging in a wide arc back in the direction from which it had come. Now it was slowing even more and pointing toward him. He kept waving the arm with the sock. Yes! It was heading his way. Yes! They had seen him after all. They were coming to save him. Oh, thank God, yes!

Rescue efforts

Earlier, at exactly 7 a.m., Grosse Pointe Yacht Club members Dean and Diane Petitpren—and their guests, Dennis Andrus and his wife, Marita Grobbel, and their captain Erik Krueger—cleared the dock at the club aboard Eagle’s Nest, the Petitprens’ 58-foot Viking Sport Fisherman. As they passed through the harbor opening, they laughingly congratulated each other on having departed the harbor on time for perhaps the first time any of them could remember.

Their destination that afternoon was Presque Isle Harbor, some 220 miles to the north, near Thunder Bay, Ontario. From there they would proceed north and westward through the Straits of Mackinac, across Lake Michigan to the ghost-town port of Fayette in the Upper Peninsula, then on to Door County in Wisconsin. It was late July; the waters were calm; the winds were light and variable; and the five boaters were excited about their voyage. The only note of discord as the Eagle’s Nest headed out onto Lake St. Clair that morning was an alert from the Coast Guard, informing boaters on Lake Huron to be on the lookout for a pilot whose airplane had crashed the day before in the water near Harbor Beach.

At approximately 10:15 a.m., just south of Harbor Beach, Krueger again heard the alert, but as far as he could see, the water ahead was free and clear.

Diane Petitpren was on the bridge that morning and acknowledges that it was unusual, perhaps even fateful, for her to be there. “I’m usually down below in the salon reading,” she said. “But this particular morning I was sitting back on the console surveying the scenery. I just happened to be looking off to port and something caught my eye. I said to no one in particular, ‘If I saw what I think I just saw, I saw a man in the water.’ Maybe it wasn’t, but I know I saw something.”

Krueger immediately swung the boat into a turn that would take them back in the direction of the sighting. Petitpren, as she had been trained to do during their routine man-overboard drills, locked her eyes on the spot and kept them there as the boat made its swing. Meanwhile, her husband readied a flotation ring with a line attached.

Now they had a waving arm with a sock in sight. The arm was attached to a man’s body wearing a black shirt and boxer shorts. Their first thought was that he was in a wet suit and was probably a jet-skier who had fallen off his ride.

Krueger was able to idle the Viking to within 10 feet of the man, who was now holding onto one of two life rings they had thrown to him. With the boat securely in neutral, the crew pulled the life ring and the pilot next to the swim platform. Trapp was too weak to climb out of the water, so Dean and Krueger grabbed him under both arms and hauled him aboard—first onto the swim platform, then through the door in the transom, and finally onto the deck where he lay motionless, staring up at the sky like a large landed fish.

Saviors

Diane Petitpren and Marita Grobbel grabbed all the beach towels they could find and wrapped them around the stricken pilot. They applied their own warmth as well, rubbing his arms, hands, and shoulders, telling him he was going to be all right.

Having read somewhere that potassium was good for hypothermia, Dennis Andrus produced a fresh banana from the galley, which Trapp was able to eat. A second was offered, and he downed that as well. Then he began to shake uncontrollably and the muscles in his body went rigid. Moments earlier, as he lay on the swim platform, Dean had asked him if he wanted water, to which he had quipped, “No thanks, I’ve had enough.”

In the meantime, Grobbel asked Trapp for his home phone number. She called Trapp’s wife, Julie, and told her they were boaters, that they had found her husband, and that he was on their boat. “Tell her he’s alive!” reminded one of the crew.

Minutes later, Trapp himself spoke into the phone to confirm that he was indeed alive.

“I told you so,” his wife responded. (Earlier, she had advised Trapp to take a commercial flight to their family reunion.)

Petitpren and Krueger were both on the boat’s VHF radio, urgently calling the Coast Guard, but inexplicably there was no answer. Their next calls went to the harbor at Harbor Beach, but there was no answer there, either. Finally, in futility, Petitpren uttered an epithet and picked up his cell phone and called 911. The 911 operator answered, assessed the situation, then immediately contacted the Sanilac County sheriff’s office, who in turn called Petitpren. The sheriff’s office dispatched a team of paramedics aboard a rescue boat. They reached the Eagle’s Nest within 45 minutes. The team checked Trapp’s vital signs, asked for a blanket to keep him warm, then loaded him onto a litter and transported him to land—and a hospital in Harbor Beach.

Homecoming

The hospital admitted Trapp and again checked his vital signs, but it had no intensive care unit, so he was taken by ambulance to Covenant Medical Center, a trauma center in Saginaw, where he spent three days recuperating.

“I couldn’t walk for two days,” he said. “My muscles were spent, and I had burned so much protein out of my system, the doctors told me it was as if I’d run a 50-mile marathon.” With two IVs putting fluid back into his system, he was soon on his feet. In the meantime, his wife and several family members from Wisconsin had arrived. They left the hospital with him and returned home by car.

“It was about 11 o’clock at night when we reached the city limits,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it—the police and fire departments were waiting for us. They turned on their lights and sirens and escorted us home. And when we got there, there must have been a hundred people gathered on the lawn to welcome us back.

“It’s good to live in a small town.”

James L. Ramsey, a Great Lakes boater, owns a Michigan communications firm.