Pilot boat comes to the rescue of airplane forced to crash-land in Columbia River

The new six-seater turboprop crashed just six minutes after taking off from Astoria, Ore. A floating crane was used to salvage the plane. (Peter Marsh)

The crew of a pilot boat rescued both occupants of a small private plane that ditched in the Columbia River on April 24.

The turboprop airplane experienced engine failure shortly after leaving an Oregon airport, and was forced to land in the Columbia River at about 1630. The plane touched down about 50 yards from shore, close to a pier where two U.S. Coast Guard vessels were moored. Onlookers immediately alerted the crew of the pilot boat, who were under way within a couple of minutes. They quickly reached the plane, where two passengers were emerging from the cabin onto the wing. They were picked up by the pilot boat and returned to shore uninjured.

The 52-foot pilot boat Arrow No. 2 , owned and operated by Foss Maritime, serves both the Columbia River Bar Pilots and the Columbia River Pilots. The boat’s operator was Michael Davis and Fred Snaza was deck hand.

“As soon as we got underway, I called the Coast Guard to inform them of the situation, then called the Columbia Bar Pilots’ dispatcher and asked him to call 911,†Davis reported.

Davis also asked Columbia River Pilot Capt. Chuck Dobbins, who was in the Foss office at the time of the crash, to come to the pilot boat to assist in the rescue, which he did.

“When we arrived on scene, there was a two- to three-foot chop, two people were standing on the wing, and the water was up to their ankles. … I approached them very slowly to avoid making a wake,†he explained. He stopped a few yards off so his crew could throw life jackets to the couple. They put them on, and told the crew no one was inside.

“I realized the plane was filling up and even a touch from us might push it completely under water,†Davis stated, “but once we had the people in life jackets, they were safe for the moment.â€

His next step was to quickly survey the situation — a discipline he credits to Foss’ regular safety training sessions — and to make a “job safety analysis†before taking further action.

Since he couldn’t execute a rescue over the high bow, he backed away and brought the 21-ton single-screw boat upwind from and across the submerged nose of the plane. “By then, the water was up to their knees,†he continued. “It was only then that we saw the smaller person was an elderly woman, so we focused on getting her off first.â€

Since the prop wash could have swept them both off the wing, Davis let the wind swing the stern closer. Snaza threw a life ring with a line, and the man on the wing clipped the woman onto it. She stepped off the wing, and Snaza and Dobbins pulled her about six feet through the water to the side of the boat, and lifted her onto the aft deck. The boat continued to drift closer until the aircraft pilot was able to clamber on board.

The aircraft pilot, Bill Henningsgaard, is a retired Microsoft executive living in Seattle. The rescued woman, Edith Henningsgaard Miller, is Henningsgaard’s mother and a former mayor of Astoria. They had taken off from the Astoria Regional Airport in his new Epic LT six-seater and headed for Seattle. They had been in the air about six minutes and were at 8,000 feet when the engine died.

The submerged aircraft was secured overnight between two Coast Guard vessels. Bergerson Construction was called in to lift the plane onto a barge with a floating crane, assisted by divers from Northwest Underwater Construction.

Peter Marsh

By Professional Mariner Staff