An early evening approach to a Maryland airport under low overcast nearly ended in tragedy on November 27. It ended instead in a triumph of technical rescue, though the pilot and passenger had to wait hours dangling about 10 stories above the ground before they were hoisted clear by cranes.
The drama played out in public view, unfolding over hours after the Mooney M20J was caught in the high-voltage power transmission lines 1 nautical mile from the threshold of Runway 14 around 5:30 p.m. Eastern time. Recorded ATC transmissions indicate the flight was cleared for the GPS approach moments before the same controller advised the pilot that he was too low, and repeated the altimeter setting issued to other aircraft in the area.
About a minute later, the controller told another pilot preparing to attempt an approach into that same airport—Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg, Maryland—that a Piper Cheyenne had missed an approach attempt shortly before, and diverted, but the Mooney appeared to be on track: “I’m still waiting on the cancellation,” the controller said. “It looks like they made it for now.”
In fact, they had made it—just not to the airport. The pilot, later identified by state police as Patrick Merkle, 66, of Washington, D.C., and Jan Williams, 65, of Louisiana, contacted emergency dispatchers by cellphone to report they were in an aircraft hanging from the power lines and awaiting rescue. Photos posted to social media by Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service personnel showed the Mooney "suspended about 100 feet in the air" not far from a shopping center where hundreds of onlookers gathered to watch the rescue attempt, The Washington Post reported.
A “high-angle rescue” response summoned firefighters trained to deal with the complex and dangerous job at hand, first to complete “binding and grounding” tasks to render the transmission tower safe, then to secure the aircraft to the tower, followed by raising crane buckets to rescue each occupant in turn. Williams was assisted out of the aircraft at 12:25 a.m. on November 28, and Merkle followed about 11 minutes later, having spent about seven hours in the precarious predicament. Montgomery County Fire Chief Scott Goldstein said pilot and passenger suffered orthopedic injuries and trauma, and had “hypothermia issues.”
More than 100,000 customers were left without power while the rescue effort was underway, and the aircraft was retrieved around 3 a.m., the newspaper reported.
The flight departed Westchester County Airport in White Plains, New York, around 4 p.m. to return to Montgomery County Airpark after spending a few hours in White Plains. According to FAA data, the weather at Montgomery County Airpark at the time of departure included 3-mile visibility in mist, light winds, and an overcast ceiling at 400 feet, 141 feet above the lowest possible published decision (or minimum descent) altitude for the RNAV (GPS) Runway 14 approach, depending on how the aircraft was equipped. By the time the Mooney arrived in the vicinity, visibility was down to 1.25 miles in mist, with the overcast down to 200 feet.
ADS-B data and ATC audio indicate the pilot was having difficulty maintaining assigned headings, and was redirected twice on the way to the initial fix.
“Looks like you made a southbound turn again … about 175,” the controller advised about 10 minutes before the Mooney’s flight ended. “Turn right heading 240 when able direct BEGKA.”
Then, nine minutes before the end of the flight, the Mooney was 1.5 miles from the fix and cleared to commence the approach. The altitude alert was issued about seven minutes later (though the pilot may have already changed frequency by that point).
County public schools canceled classes Monday, along with Montgomery College, and Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Red Line service was also disrupted into Monday, The Washington Post reported.
Goldstein said that the rescue workers spoke directly to the stranded pilot and passenger via cellphone throughout the long rescue operation, though the calls were kept intermittent to preserve phone battery life.