Pilot, daughter describe their surreal descent into ocean in Cirrus plane
Elaine McGlaughlin described Saturday as "one of the most exhilarating days of my life."
It was because she had just dodged death.
Hours earlier, she and her father, Richard, had splashed down into the ocean near the Bahamas after deploying the parachute on their Cirrus SR22 single-engine prop plane.
They had no other choice.
"Seeing the propeller stopped cold, completely motionless, right on the front of the plane in the middle of the sky was bewildering, to say the least," Elaine McGlaughlin wrote in an e-mail to family and friends Saturday night describing the harrowing moments around the crash.
Richard McGlaughlin, 59, is a doctor and pilot from Birmingham, Ala., who has been visiting Haiti each month since the devastating earthquake two years ago. For the first time, his 25-year-old daughter was accompanying him on the trip.
At 12:15 p.m. Saturday, after taking off from a small airport in Miami, McGlaughlin reported to air traffic control over the Bahamas that the dead engine was forcing him to deploy the parachute system on the Cirrus a few miles from Andros Island. He had been watching a dipping oil pressure gauge for a while until the engine seized and the propeller stopped.
Despite thinking the worst, the two were not hurt and were plucked from the water by U.S. Coast Guard and Bahamian rescuers just after 1 p.m.
The McLaughlins have since reached their destination in Haiti and the News Tribune was not able to reach them directly. Elaine's mother, Mary McGlaughlin, was home in Birmingham on Thursday and said she shudders to think of what might have been.
"The best outcome happened and that is what I focus on," she said.
Communicating with her husband and daughter has been difficult, Mary said, since they lost their cell phones with the plane. They sent a photo to her phone Thursday showing them both in Haiti after scrambling to resume their trip Monday.
Elaine McLaughlin, in the e-mail sent from a Nassau hotel where the two were sent after the rescue, said she was calmed by her father's cool demeanor before the drop but was soon overcome with emotion.
"As my dad's voice became more gravelly, I sensed in him and began to feel myself what I now have the time and luxury to recognize as dread," she wrote. "Dread is sticky, humid; it fills the air and waits heavily."
"Below us was fluorescent blue, crystal-like water. My dad told me to tighten my seat belt low around my hips, which I did, much more nervous at this point. He told me he was going to release the parachute when we dropped to 2,000 feet, which was standard protocol, and to please tighten my seat belt as much as I possibly could."
They hit the water hard, with Elaine smacking her head on the dashboard of the plane. Water soon filled the cabin and the two escaped out the pilot-side door and onto the wing. They opened a small rubber raft and waited for the rescue team.
The water was colder than they expected it to be.
"I was freezing, pretty freaked out, and really grateful for the U.S. Coast Guard," Elaine wrote.
Bill King, a vice president for Duluth-based Cirrus, said Saturday's life-saving deployment was the 32nd since the device was introduced in 1999.
"It's very gratifying," King said, noting that 51 pilots and passengers have been saved by parachutes. "We're very pleased to have another successful deployment under our belt."
King said he has been in touch with Dr. McGlaughlin.
"He did absolutely everything right," King said. "It was textbook perfect."
King said "catastrophic" failure in any plane engine is rare given their robust makeup. He said Cirrus will work with authorities on finding out went wrong once the plane is retrieved. A Cirrus team will go down to Florida, he said.
The McGlaughlins said they had picked the plane up after regular maintenance work had been performed.
But the first priority is making sure the customer is OK, King said.
He is impressed with McGlaughlin's demeanor, saying he has a pilot's required level of coolness under pressure with direct and deliberate action Saturday.
On the Cirrus Owners & Pilots Association, or COPA, website, pilots across the world discussed the McGlaughlin incident.
One COPA pilot who communicated with Richard after the crash said on the site that those with the Cirrus parachutes have a decision to make when over water on whether to simply coast onto the surface or deploy the chute. "People survive conventional ditching over 90 percent of the time," the pilot reported. "Although some people survive the landing only to die from exposure or drowning afterwards."
COPA records show that five Cirrus pilots have deployed the parachute over water. The hard landing caused some injuries and, in one case, a pilot died when the chute was pulled too late.
McGlaughlin might have known what to expect because he visited a Cirrus flight simulator in Atlanta to see what deploying the chute felt like. The plane basically stops and the nose points down as soon as the chute is opened. The thrust that powers the chute out causes a jolt and the splashdown is at about 25 mph, Richard reported.
King said McGlaughlin didn't want to linger too long on the crash when the two spoke.
"He just said, 'I need to get to work on Monday,'" King said.
McGlaughlin told the Birmingham News about the surreal moments with his daughter after the splashdown.
"I told her I loved her and was glad she was OK, and she said the same," McGlaughlin told the newspaper. "Then we giggled. Sort of hysterical, and in shock."
They debated going back to the plane for items and then decided to stay put, the father said. "It would be stupid to drown after you just lived through a plane crash."
On Monday morning, the McGlaughlins boarded a commercial jet and flew to Haiti.
"Am I going to do it again? As soon as I get another airplane," Richard told a Miami TV news station.
Elaine described those moments in the water in what those in the Duluth Cirrus office might want to use in promotions for its planes and the parachutes.
"We were soaked, giddy with adrenaline and the sheer gratitude that comes with survival, I suppose, and in absolute awe of this gigantic orange and white parachute that was still billowing calmly on the water, fully inflated, just resting there."