Two Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University flight students were in the right place at the right time when an 81-year-old pilot made a distress call near Palatka, Florida, on March 14.
ERAU senior and flight instructor Chris Shields and aeronautical science junior Connor Cvetan were doing pattern work in their Cessna 150 at Palatka Municipal Airport/Lt. Kay Larkin Field when they heard an emergency call over the common traffic advisory frequency. The 81-year-old retired airline captain, Jim Goolsby, was reporting engine trouble at 800 feet.
Shields described how he and Cvetan got the aircraft in sight immediately. “I reached out to Goolsby and asked if he would be able to make to the fields.” Shields also advised Goolsby of the weather and let him know that he’d be contacting emergency services.
According to an ERAU press release, Goolsby tried for the fields, and then a nearby road, but ultimately was unable to make either and ditched the airplane in a retention pond.
“When I saw the plane touch down into the water, my heart sank,” said Cvetan. “Our first thought was to try to contact the pilot. No luck. That’s when we determined that calling Jacksonville [air traffic control] was the best option.”
“All emergency situations make you a better pilot in the end,” explained Shields, “Do what needs to be done to the best of your ability.” He added, “Every emergency situation forces you to make split-second decisions that could have catastrophic consequences. The experience I gained from this situation will definitely help prepare me for my airline career when I leave Embry-Riddle this upcoming summer and, in fact, it’ll help me to make split-second decisions for as long as I fly.”
“Sometimes, I feel as if a lot of us pilots get desensitized to flying,” Cvetan told AOPA. “At any moment this could happen to anyone. What would you want another pilot to do for you in that situation?”
The students began circling the area at 1,500 feet and eventually made contact with Jacksonville approach to help services locate the downed aircraft. The students were able to give the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard exact coordinates over the radio. Ground vehicles began arriving a few minutes later. By then Goolsby had made his way out of the cockpit and could be seen standing on top of his now-sinking airplane. “Swimming to the shore nearby was out of the question because of a large gator in the immediate area,” Goolsby said.
In the air for close to three hours and low on fuel, Shields and Cvetan made one last call to emergency services and headed back to the airport where Steven Lange, ERAU Eagles Flight Team captain, was waiting to take off and assist emergency services.
A Navy helicopter was eventually able to pick up and transport Goolsby to safety, and he sustained no injuries. The press release described Goolsby as “a pilot since he was 15 years old, a former instructor, commercial airline captain and aerobatics performer,” who has 66 years of experience flying. “I’ve always been an avid aviator. Aviation is a great career. But it takes a lot of passion.” When asked if he would fly again soon, he responded, “Oh yeah!...But I have advice. Always, always, always wear shoulder harnesses.”
In the press release, Rich Garner, flight training manager and coach of the Eagles Flight Team, lauded the students for their efforts. “The reason this incident had a happy ending is because of Chris and Connor,” said Garner. “No one else responded, and the crashed pilot might not have had that easy of a rescue had they not been in the right location and done the right thing.”