19 November 2009
Tonight’s daring ocean landing of a Careflight plane just off the coast of Norfolk Island in the Pacific Ocean is somewhat of a mini version of the amazing Hudson River landing by Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III. This amazing American pilot ditched Flight 1549 into the freezing waters of New York’s Hudson River after a flock of birds reportedly cut the jet’s engines.
Captain Dominic James and his First Officer Zoe Culpit were flying a critically ill woman on a Careflight medical evacuation (operated by Pel-Air Aviation) from Apia, in Samoa to Melbourne, Australia.
Careflight staff have indicated the plane was scheduled to land at Norfolk Island for refueling before continuing on to Australia. Captain James had made several unsuccessful approaches to land at Norfolk Island airport during a 1 hour period, but ran out of time and fuel. There was then no option but to ditch the Westwind jet into the ocean in the dark with a swell of waves 1.5 metres (almost 5 feet) to contend with. Captain James has been praised for his “amazing” skill during the emergency.
This incident, although heroic in terms of what these pilots did to produce a great outcome, was not as dramatic as the Hudson River ditching simply because of the size variation of the planes, the smaller landing site in the middle of New York and the number of passengers affected by that incident. Nevertheless, these Aussie pilots are being hailed as heroic for bringing down the plane safely in dark, treacherous conditions.
The jet sank within minutes, and the passengers – the patient, her husband, two medical crew and the two pilots – had to cling to each other for 90 minutes in the water before they were rescued.
Norfolk Island airport manager Glenn Robinson told Radio 3AW in Melbourne that the passengers were “shaken up” after their ordeal. “They were extremely lucky and, believe me, they all know it.”
Only three passengers had time to put on life jackets but they assisted the others to stay afloat as the plane sank.
Glenn Robinson praised the pilot in his radio interview. “Full credit to the pilot … the aircraft sank fairly rapidly and he pulled the passengers together,” he said. “It was just an amazing effort by him.”
A farmer on a hilltop saw a light in the ocean and notified authorities. Fortunately, a nearby boat came to the rescue of the group with little light to guide them because of a new moon. The boat’s radar gave a general location, and one of the rescuers eventually saw the faint flow from one of the life jackets.
The survivors were in shock and suffering from hypothermia, but no one suffered major injuries. They were taken to Norfolk Island Hospital. It is also reported that the female Medivac patient had been a “walk on” passenger with an infection in an old cut. She has now been transferred to Australia for treatment.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau will be investigating the incident. There are questions as to why the airline did not have a “Plan B” to redirect the flight to New Zealand and why it ran out of fuel.
Pel-Air Aviation chairman John Sharp said he was very proud of the Captain and First Officer. “Their professionalism stood out on the day and made a substantial difference to the outcome,” he said. “They executed what would have to be described as a perfect landing on water,” Mr Sharp told reporters in Sydney. “The pilots ensured that the aircraft landed close to the coast, close to rescue.
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