ditching 2

ray's triathlon

The year finished with a bang. On 20 November 1999 at 1620 precisely the U.S. Coast Guard rang our number and said, “I am not sure who I am supposed to be talking to but a Ray Clamback asked me to call you” So I replied – “well if you are the U.S. Coast Guard and Ray Clamback asked you to call – what’s going on out there?”


Slowly the story unfolded.
At 1631 – I was still on the phone – he said “Oh I have just have been told he has ditched” I was literally walking out the door to step into the Kingair to do a job – so I had to call up Richard Katsch our 3rd Kingair pilot and he stepped into the breach and kept to schedule. Meanwhile the long wait started.
Only four of us knew – my instructors. They stayed with me until the Kingair came back – and slowly more of the story from the Coast Guard unfolded. Ray had collected a brand new Cherokee Archer from the factory in Florida, flown it to
Santa Barbara – some 18 hours flying. 

airshow, miami, military-5163252.jpg

Changed the oil, tanked it, flown it to LA and back another 2.1. hours and not a skerrick of oil had been used. Not even an oil drip on the tarmac.! Ray had left Santa Barbara at 0631 for Hilo Hawaii on a normal ferry – (somewhere around his 170th crossing). The total trip should have been 17 hours. About 10 hours out his co-pilot Shane noticed the oil pressure had dropped a little. He brought it to Ray’s attention. Was it a gauge? Was it for real?? After noticing that it had dropped slightly again, Ray immediately called out the Coast Guard. He put out a call on 121.5 and half the Pacific lit up. United Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines and several others all came on frequency. United called their centre in Chicago and they called out the Guard, found the size and direction of the sea swell, the speed and direction of the wind and the whereabouts of any shipping.

There then ensued much discussion as to the cause of the oil pressure drop and for how long the engine would keep going. The United Captain was in his spare time a knowledgeable General Aviation pilot and he and Ray agreed on the likely hood of the engine keeping going and for what reasons. By this time, he was 5 hours out from Hilo. The choices were not great for ditching.

  • Turning north east – i.e. going backwards for 200 miles. This would give them a day time ditching but with no Coast Guard, and may be not making it to the ship which was 2 hours away. As well as going backwards the water would have been colder.
  • Keep going to Hilo and maybe making it, or at least getting into the 150 nautical mile range which meant the US Coast Guard helicopters could pick them up. If not making it to the 150 mile mark at least a rendezvous with the Coast Guard would have been made – but the ditching would be at night! Not good.

Ray elected to go forwards in the hope of getting to Hilo – and /or rendezvousing with the Coast Guard. Over the years our Company has obviously had to face the challenge and possibility of a ditching – and we have always said – if we have to ditch, we pray it is within the US Coast Guard territory. They are a super service, with a charter of operation since 1799. (Maybe 1789!). Although in the past we have had nothing to do with them, we have watched them conduct their operations helping others. They are a most proficient and knowledgeable lot. Ray & Shane (his co-pilot) sat out the oil pressure drop and watched the engine temperature increase slowly, knowing that the engine had to stop at some stage.

It was just a matter of when, where and how long. Meanwhile the Coast Guard Hercules (C130) arrived and sat on their wing and or circled them – to slow down to 120 knots is hard for a C130. But they did. Discussion took place on how to conduct the ditching, what direction to land in, what landing attitude to adopt in high seas i.e. 9-foot waves & 20 knot winds. What was the cloud base? Etc etc. Finally – 2.5 hours out from Hilo the engine quit. Ray told the C130 and they immediately turned north laid a flare path on the water (it was dark – 1920 Hawaiian time) and Ray took up a heading of 350 and glided from 6000 feet to the water. He plunged into cloud and rain, and as he did so the engine made a loud noise and all the electrics quit.

That meant no no radio, no cabin lights, no landing lights to see the water, no outside lights for the C130 to follow his progress and no gyros to keep the aircraft upright! Quite a tight spot to be in. He came out of the cloud and there was the flare path. He also had started to lose control but seeing the flare-path allowed him to right the situation. He was too high so he dogged legged it to lose height and then he approached the water, set up the attitude guessing at the height with the flares to help him and touched down and came to a very quick stop. (At no stage did he see the water) The luck here was that when he touched down the swell was being kind at that moment. Both Ray and Shane got out onto the wing and Ray said it was as if it was back on the ramp the plane was so level. They already had their life jackets on.

They threw the life raft into the water, pulled the cord and nothing happened!! A dark moment Ray said. His maritime beacon had been inadvertently attached to the life raft. Within 3 minutes the aircraft slowly went nose down and started to sink. Ray and Shane stepped off the wing to the rear because they did not wish to be hit by the tail. The cord to the life raft was pulled from Ray’s hand and that was the end of the raft and beacon. Oh dear – that was a big mistake. Meanwhile the Coast Guard had lost sight of them due to the electrical failure and the aircraft going through rain showers. However the Coast Guard searched and searched and searched. They dropped a data buoy at the end of the flare path, and after 1.5 hours of further searching and not sighting them they dropped a second data buoy and left to refuel and return. I have to say that the Lieutenant on the telephone to me was a model of optimism and truth. He did not know that I was a ferry pilot – so he did not know what I did or did not understand.

  • That to survive a night landing in high seas meant you had to have two things, extraordinary skill and extraordinary luck.
  • I also knew the aircraft would sink within a very short time, given the number of hours they had been airborne and that their wings would still be full of fuel – i.e., no air to keep the aircraft afloat.

Neither of us could work out why there were no lights. They in their own minds assumed the worst that Ray had lost it on landing. Neither of us figured on an electrical failure. I personally thought that with Ray’s known skill he would get out. It was after that that which was the worrying bit. Life Rafts, Life Jackets, Beacons, are they in the raft are they in the water.? The first C130 had to go back to Honolulu – to refuel. Ray said that was a dark moment when it left, but he knew it would be back. Shane was pessimistic about its return, but after all this was his first ferry. What a first!!! Meanwhile behind the scenes, the Coast Guard turned a bulk carrier called the Nyon around and sent it to the data buoy while the second C130 timed its departure so they could search for at least 2.5 hours in the day light. A long lonely night in the water ensued.

Their jackets kept them afloat, but nothing could stop them from drinking the sea water. The wind was from a different direction to the swell. Every which way they turned, their faces were hit by the wind and water. Shane’s way of dealing with it was to keep on turning his head looking for the next wave – the consequence of this was that during the 10 hours his jacket rubbed his neck raw. Ray just floated – Cagey energy conserver. Keeping together was apparently easy. Shane being a doctor told Ray to induce vomiting to get rid of the seawater from his stomach. This they did about 4 times during the 10 hours. Ray said he felt his energy slipping away. Shane being younger was not having the same problems. Ray had to kick his pants off as he felt they were dragging him down. Away went $3500 US dollars and $1000 Australian Dollars! The night dragged on – they talked, floated and waited. The Second C130 came back. Boxed the area in. Ray noticed that the C130 did not have its lights on. Unbeknownst to them the helicopter that had gone to Hilo in case they got within 150 miles returned to Barbers Point Honolulu.

When the C130 was starting its engines the Helicopter pilot ran over to the C130 and said “here, takes these night vision goggles. You have a scanner in there who knows how to use them”. With that he threw them in. That was the difference between them being found and not found.! The tiny lights on their jacket came in through the night vision goggles. When I was talking to the Coast Guard the lieutenant told me they saw two lights out there but they did not know whether it was them or the aircraft. I told them the aircraft was at the bottom of the sea and I told them why. So that was good news to me, but information that they were cautious about. At 0210 they called me and said that they had been picked up by the bulk carrier Nyon – That was simply amazing. The C130 dropped 3 flares around them for the Nyon carrier to come and heave to and wait for daylight. The seas were too large to put a boat out in the dark!! Shane was the first to see lights.

He said his mind was playing up a bit and he thought it was a reef with lights on it. Then he thought it was a ship on a reef. Anyway, he decided to swim over to it. Ray said he was going to go slowly as he had to conserve energy. Shane swam on and Ray slowly paddled along. They have no idea of distance or time. But about 1.5 hours before daylight Shane got to the ship first, made suitable noises and was pulled on board. Ray got there about 10 minutes after Shane – he swam to a lower part of the ship which was fortunate, so instead of being pulled up 70 feet, he finally swam through an opening. However, to get to swim or be pulled through the opening took about an hour. Every time Ray got close to the ship the waves pulled him back. 4 times they threw a rope. He could not see it coming, but could hear it hitting the water. Three times it was within one foot but he could not get to it. Swim harder they said – he couldn’t. Finally, he got it, hung on as they pulled him closer, threw him a life buoy and finally he was pulled through the side opening of the Nyon carrier. Heaven he thought – that little exercise took about an hour! Swimming in the the waves which were hitting the ship and being pulled back out. The ship had just been commissioned in August 99 and was complete with a hospital and a paramedic. They were obviously well set up for fishing people out of the sea.

They placed Ray in a cradle and gently hosed him down for 30 minutes to get his body temperature back to normal. Then they put Ray in bed and a paramedic sat by him, giving him warm tea then some warm broth all at the correct temperature. The captain’s wife visited and told him the captain would give him some shorts, they would transfer them in 5 hours to a US Coast Guard Cutter. (The ship was on its way to Korea with Soya Beans) The Captain visited. The crew were Croatian, all spoke perfect English, some of whom had relations in Australia. So, they were a kind and friendly lot who started him on the path to recovery. Ray was so weak, he could not sit up. They had to transfer him to the Cutter in a stretcher. The light and sun were so bright they had to cover his eyes with towelling. The transfer took about an hour as the seas were very rough. However, Ray does not really know how long. The cutter then proceeded slowly back to Hilo – 20 hours – to conserve fuel, they had gone out in 11 hours at high speed. Slowly they got their strength back and when they got off the boat at Hilo, they were able to walk off the boat.

The Press were there en masse from West Coast USA and Australia. A Rugger scrum. The Captain of the Cutter helped them through the conference on the wharf, and finally after half an hour helped them to the hotel. They were not hospital cases. The minute they got to their room the telephone proceeded to ring for the next 36 hours non-stop.!!!!!!!!!Meanwhile back at the ranch after receiving that phone call – Richard went out in the Kingair, Lisa, Megan, myself and another friend sat down to await further phone calls and for the return of the Kingair with Craig & Richard. The friend went out and got a case of beer, Megan got nibbles and in between we talked to the Coast Guard. After we put the Kingair to bed, Craig arranged to ring me at around 0200 to get news, Lisa went on to CNN to see what was happening – I don’t think anyone got much sleep that night. I had had to tell Shane’s wife (We had a committee meeting with my little crew as to what I should say – i.e. The consensus was sound optimistic but be truthful.

I had told the aircraft owner and David Friend’s wife – David Friend being a ferry pilot with over 450 Pacific crossings. He rang from New Zealand and said “well I don’t know what to say to help you other than that Ray will be fished out” He was right. The Coast Guard had been asked to release the names in Honolulu. I asked them not to as I said that we worked for some Americans in Hawaii from time to time and I did not want them to learn through the media – I wanted to tell them. But I had nothing to tell them at this moment and it was the middle of the night. The next morning the media went ballistic – and it was on the TV news before I had time to ring our American friends. Meanwhile they had heard. They were really sweet & kind and they were returning to the USA in a Gulf Stream the next day from Sydney and would I like to go with them? I checked out the various airline connections and in fact the Gulf Stream was the best arrival time to connect with the Hilo flights and the most comfortable. They were very kind.

I went in the Gulf Stream to Honolulu. I could easily learn to live with a Gulf Stream on tap – I have to say. I arrived in Hilo around 1000 – rang Ray from the foyer to give him a chance to organise himself then up I went upstairs to his room. In the doorway stood and ‘old man’. They were at least both. They had both been banged around being pulled on to the bulk carrier. Rays eyes needed immediate attention as did his cuts and bruises which were beginning to go bad. He had the most enormous amount of chaffing from the knees to his groin and could hardly walk. I surveyed the scene and went off to the chemist and came back and started administering. Shane decided he would return to Australia now that I had arrived, but before he went, we three went off to the Coast Guard Cutter to see the crew and thank them. Shane gave a little speech, Ray could not so I gave a little thank you to them – it was quite emotional even for me who had not been in the water.

People in Hilo were so kind and generous, George the customs man who looks after our ferrying needs came to the wharf to say hullo to Ray, and Dina, from whom we buy fuel. They both came to the hotel to offer help. The taxi ride to the airport the next day – they gave us for free. Ray lost every single thing he owned other than his wrist watch which incidentally still works, ID cards, passport, money you name it he lost it. At the airport they wanted a photo ID so I dragged out the newspaper. Well that had the man’s eyes boggling which made for a quick check in.! On arrival in Honolulu our American friends had said we could stay in a little unit they had for as long as we wanted and they booked Ray into their Doctor. The doctor could not believe how good a condition Ray was in – apart from the chafing and eyes. He administered creams, eye drops and told me to keep going with my peroxide and Betadine treatment of his wounds. Within days he was better and getting younger every day. He could now walk without losing steam. We also had been leant a little car which got us around Honolulu.

We went to the Australian Consulate (they had been marvellous to us for several days) and got a passport in 10 minutes. On our last day when Ray was nearly back to normal, we went to visit the Joint Rescue Co-ordination centre to say thank you. We visited the Admiral of the Coast Guard for a big thank you and a long talk, then onto Barbers Point to see the air crews and thank them. That was a very emotional day for them as well as us. They pointed out that we were the first people that they had rescued that they had met up with. We in turn could not praise them enough for an extraordinary professional job well done. The young scanner who first saw the lights in the water with the night vision goggles, told me his heart went pitter patter on first sighting. The whole crew were very excited. (Meanwhile the first crew that had returned were very sad because they thought that the two had gone in – they found it hard to await the news). Everyone in Honolulu and for that matter everywhere we went, were so kind and generous. We had Thanksgiving with KC and his family – (one of the pilots of the Gulf Stream).

He also had been kind and driven us around on the first day to the doctor and passport, photos etc. Without him it would have taken a great deal longer with much getting lost! Upon Ray’s recovery we were faced with two Cessna aircraft sitting at the factory that needed ferrying. So I went over with Ray, and Lisa (our pilot) came over. We all hooked up, picked up the aircraft and flew in tandem back to Santa Barbara – Ray being a bossy passenger by this time! He had made some appointments in the USA to coincide with this ferry. He decided to keep those appointments, and then asked Richard if he would do this ferry in tandem with Lisa. This was to be her first ferry flight and she was going to be shepherded by Ray.

Richard managed to get time off from his job and came over. On the morning that Lisa and Richard took off for Hilo, Ray and I came home. Meanwhile I swapped with Richard because we had a Kingair job that I wanted to do and I had slightly baulked at the thought of ferrying quite yet! Kingair will do me for the time being. Lisa did a most successful first ferry. Richard mentored her through. Ray is now completely better and yesterday was certainly a blessed Christmas.