The pilots and passengers aboard three different single-engine piston airplanes each had runways in sight but opted for the water, coincidentally within a six-day period along a roughly 100-mile stretch of Florida's Gulf Coast.
Genesah Duffy, chief pilot and manager of flight operations and training for Icon Aircraft Inc., recounted in a telephone interview how she came to be in perfect position to respond quickly when the Mooney went into the drink a few hundred yards short of Runway 4 at Peter O. Knight Airport.
Icon has been training pilots to fly the A5 at that airport since 2016, and Duffy happened to be free when one of the company aircraft came out of its 100-hour inspection, which is why she had just touched down in the water a few miles away when pilots in the pattern reported that the Mooney had not made it all the way to the runway. Duffy had heard the Mooney pilot's previous transmissions, and had noted its location, along with other local traffic, so she had a pretty good idea where to start looking. She fired up the A5 and took off, aiming for where pattern aircraft make the base-to-final turn, and soon spotted a yellow life jacket, and the faint outline of the Mooney, already fully submerged.
"I kept the yellow life vest in sight," Duffy recalled, describing how she factored wind and current to position her aircraft where the swimmers were being pushed. The A5 was equipped, as usual, with a paddle and a pair of Mustang inflatable personal floatation devices, and she was able to get one into the hands of the swimmer, who turned out to be the pilot. Helping the swimming pilot get around to the right side of the aircraft occupied Duffy's attention as a Tampa Police boat approached the trio. The boat "arrived after I got the life vest on him … I want to say I think I already had him on the right side, pulling him on board," recalled Duffy, a U.S. Navy veteran who served as an electrician supporting the submarine fleet before earning a long list of pilot certificates as a civilian.
The police boat crew picked up the passenger, and Duffy then helped the pilot board the boat, a somewhat awkward transfer given that the boat's gunwale rode higher in the water than the Icon's wing. With that job complete, Duffy said one of the officers told her, "'You're awesome, thank you,'" and the boat departed for shore. The pilot had reported engine trouble as the cause for his brief swim, and also expressed gratitude for the prompt pickup. "It was a pretty short conversation," Duffy recalled.
Later, back at the shop, note was taken that the post-maintenance shakedown was supposed to have been done the Friday before, but a tire puncture had delayed it, which is why Duffy wound up in the right place at the right time.
"It just lined up" that way, she recalled. "The other instructors were busy."
Duffy was the first pilot to rescue a fellow pilot in Florida during that six-day stretch, though the pilot she helped was not the first pilot to sample the Gulf Coast water, which ranges in temperature from the upper 60s to low 70s this time of year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That data suggests that the pilot who was spotted standing on the roof of a Beechcraft Bonanza floating off Cedar Key, about half a mile from George T. Lewis Airport on November 9, narrowly missed a somewhat more bracing swim.
According to a press release from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, agents from the Air and Marine Operations division's Tampa Marine Unit, joined by Citrus Country Sheriff's Office Tactical Impact Unit personnel, were conducting a joint offshore operation when they spotted a pilot climbing out of a sinking aircraft, then standing on top as their vessel approached.
“The situational awareness and quick actions of the Marine Interdiction Agents and Sheriff’s Deputies prevented a possible human tragedy," said Michael Matthies, CBP deputy director of Marine Operations, in the November 12 release. "We are thankful we have the proper resources and trained personnel to perform when incidents like this present themselves.”
Also on November 9 and about 100 nautical miles south, a Piper Cherokee attempting to land at Sarasota/Bradenton International Airport also wound up in the water. Local media captured a photo of the Cherokee floating a few feet from several docks, and reported that the pilot was found already out of the water and awaiting the arrival of first responders. The 25-year-old pilot had reported a throttle control problem, according to local deputies, and opted for Sarasota Bay after deciding he would not make the runway.
While none of the pilots who were forced to ditch in recent days were likely to have been entirely pleased by the circumstances, no injuries were reported.