Plane: Amy Knowlton |
In January of 1987, Amy Knowlton, a research scientist at the New England
Aquarium, was conducting surveys of northern right whales off the coast of
Georgia when the twin-engine plane she was riding in with four others ran out
of fuel and crashed into the ocean. Here's her harrowing account of her
remarkable escape from a sinking aircraft.
NOVA: So you survived a plane crash in Atlantic. What happened?
Knowlton: Well, we were surveying northern right whales in their calving
grounds off Georgia. Typically our surveys took place nearer to the coast, and
we used a single-engine plane. But on this day we were going off shore up to 40
miles, so we decided to use a twin-engine plane, just for safety reasons. It
was a Cessna Skymaster 337, which is like a push-me, pull-you type of plane,
with engines in front and back rather than on either side.
It was overcast, and it was a little windier than we liked for surveys, but we
decided to go anyway. There were five of us on board, the pilot and four
observers. We had flown up to Savannah from Amelia Island, Florida, where we
were based, and we'd done a couple of track lines out to 40 miles, offshore and
back. We had just turned offshore, heading east, to start another track line.
Now, this Cessna had both auxiliary fuel tanks and main fuel tanks. We were
running on the auxiliary tanks, trying to run them down to almost nothing
before switching to the main tanks, which were full. I remember the pilot
reaching up over his head and switching the first engine over to the main tank.
About five minutes later, the engine sputtered and died. I was sitting directly
behind the pilot, and I remember feeling the blood run out of my face.
NOVA: There was no fuel in the main tank?
Amy Knowlton was riding in a Cessna 337, much like the one seen here, when the engines suddenly quit, casting the plane into the sea.
Knowlton: Well, apparently the fuel valve hadn't switched. It was some sort of
technical glitch. Basically we had run out of fuel in the auxiliary tank and
didn't get connected to the main tank. So that engine died, and the pilot
started futzing with all the switches, trying to get it started. He turned the
key, and it just wouldn't start.
Now, I had a hand-held marine radio, which you can use to call any shore-based
station or boat, and I was thinking, I wonder if I should put out a distress
call? Then I thought, What have I got to lose? If we don't have problems,
that's okay, but if we do, somebody ought to know about it. So I put out a May
Day call, which was picked up by the Coast Guard, and I had a running
conversation with them. They said, "Where are you located? How many people do
you have on board? What's the nature of your problem?" and so on.
The pilot, meanwhile, was focussed on trying to head us back to shore. We were
now at about 500 feet. We typically surveyed at 750, so we had lost a couple of
hundred feet of altitude. He told everybody to put on their life vests, which
we all did. He knew he had to switch the other engine, because it was still
running on the auxiliary tank, and I think he knew the same problem could
happen again. So he switched it, and just at that instant, we lost our second
engine. At that point, he didn't have any time to futz; he just had to figure
out how he was going to land that plane.
He put out a May Day call, which ended up going to the Savannah Airport,
because that was the frequency he happened to be on. And I put out a second May
Day call to the Coast Guard, saying, "We've lost our second engine, we're going
NOVA: How far were you from shore at that point?
Knowlton: We were about 12 miles from shore. We didn't have modern-day
equipment like Loran or GPS to tell us our exact latitude and longitude; we
just had what's called a distance mileage estimator, which gives you a range
and bearing from a certain location. But I was in the back seat, and I didn't
know where that instrument was nor how to read it. So I just told the Coast
Guard I could see the entrance platform to the Savannah Channel and estimated
we were 10 to 12 miles off-shore. So we thought they had some idea of where we
Anyway, we just slowly glided down and hit the water. Fortunately, we had a
plane whose landing gear could go up, because we could easily have flipped over
when we hit the water; that's a common problem in ditching. The down side was
that sea water immediately shot like a firehose into the wheel wells, and by
the time we came to a stop the water was already at our waists. The plane was
filling up pretty quickly.
NOVA: Once you hit the water, how long did it take until you came to a stop?
Knowlton: Not long, maybe 15 seconds.
NOVA: Was the water rough?
Knowlton: It was fairly rough and quite cold, 52°F. Luckily, everybody was
okay; nobody was hurt. There was a guy sitting in the back seat who was
clutching a small valise, a soft-padded case that held a life raft. There was a
woman sitting next to the pilot, and then there was a guy sitting next to me,
who was trying to get the door on the right side of the plane open. But because
of the water pressure on the outside holding the door shut, until that
equalized, he couldn't get it open.
The water was getting up to our chests and would soon be at our necks. I was
beginning to think, My God, we're not going to make it out of here. The guy in
the back seat pushed the life raft forward on top of the water. He was
thinking, Well, if I'm not going to make it out, whoever does is going to need
Meanwhile, Brian, the guy sitting next to me, finally turned around, leaned
back into me, and kicked the door open with his foot. More water rushed in, of
course, but by then it was already getting up towards our necks.
NOVA: How long had it been from when you hit until he managed to get the door
Knowlton: I think it was a couple of minutes, but a couple of very long
minutes. I do remember a bit of swearing going on, something like, "Get the
goddamn door open." When he finally did, at that moment I had this vision of
Well, this is the time that I can die, because we're all going to be scrambling
to get out of this plane, and I might get hooked up on something or might not
be able to hold my breath long enough to get out. I was really nervous.
NOVA: Did you panic?
Knowlton: None of us panicked, which was an amazing thing, but it was
definitely the first time I thought, Oh God, this is going to be hairy. Whereas
everything else had been scary, and I certainly had had that pit of total fear
in my stomach, I had had things to distract me, like talking to the Coast
Guard. But as soon as we hit the water, I had let go of the radio because I had
to undo my seat belt. The radio wasn't waterproof, so there was no further
contact with them after that.
I remember thinking, "Oooh, this could be really bad." Then I took a breath and
went down under the water. I opened my eyes underwater and just went towards
the light that was coming in the door. I don't remember feeling anything or
anybody. I mean, I was out of there in two seconds flat.
NOVA: So the water was all the way to the top of the cabin by the time you were
starting towards the door?
Knowlton: Right. There was not much air space left. The woman in front and the
guy next to me got out first, then me, then the guy in the way back. The four
of us were sitting there in the water with no life raft, and we suddenly said,
"My God, where's the pilot?" He was nowhere to be seen, and the plane was
submerged. It was a high-wing plane, and we couldn't see much of it anymore,
just the wings floating on the surface. Then, all of a sudden, out pops the
valise with the life raft, and right behind it is the pilot.
NOVA: So he had been searching for the life raft?
Knowlton: I think he was looking around to make sure everybody had gotten out,
but by the time he had unfastened his seat belt and got going, he was surprised
to find nobody was left.
So we inflated the life raft and all climbed in. A couple of minutes later the
plane sank, just went slowly down under the surface, its lights still flashing.
It was a very eerie sight.
The life raft was very minimal. It was like a large inner tube with a bottom,
but no cover, no water or food, nothing that would have helped us survive if
we'd been out there a long time. It was a little freaky. That was the first
time I began to lose my cool. I started almost crying, just because I realized
how frightening this whole thing had been, how close we had come. Fortunately,
somebody was there to comfort me and calm me down, because had nobody been
there, I think I would have really lost it.
NOVA: Was the sun out? Was it warm?
Knowlton: It was still overcast, and the air temperature was only in the
mid-fifties. We crashed around noon-time, so we fortunately had a good amount
of daylight left. But we were all soaked to the bone, and we were sitting on
this life raft with no wind protection on a moderately windy day. And I think
we were floating out to sea.
NOVA: Did you suffer from hypothermia?
Knowlton: We were shivering a lot, but none of us got to the point of losing
cognition or anything like that. We were down to like 95-degree body
temperature. I think to die from it, you have to be much lower than that. So we
weren't seriously hypothermic, just pretty cold.
NOVA: How did you interact with the others? Were you all in shock, or did you
start joking with one another after awhile?
Knowlton: The pilot started singing songs, trying to keep morale up. After two
hours, you've got to do something to pass the time, so you're not just sitting
there freaked-out. I mean, we didn't know if we'd be found or not. We knew we
had had this connection with the Coast Guard, but we had no idea whether they
would actually find us. So the pilot was trying to chat, sing, just sort of
lighten things up a bit, which was great. It was very useful.
NOVA: So the Coast Guard didn't find you right away.
Knowlton: No, they started searching in the wrong area. But then a Coast Guard
radio man, who had just come off duty and had heard about this crisis, decided
to listen again to my radio call and see if he could pick something up, because
they had heard voices in the background that they couldn't decipher. For 45
minutes he tweaked all the dials, trying to figure out what was being said in
the background. And what was being said was the pilot's second May Day call to
the Savannah Airport, which had the distance mileage estimated position. (For
some reason the airport hadn't received the transmission.) The Coast Guard guy
finally deciphered what the pilot had said. They plotted the position and
realized they were searching too close to shore. So they diverted the search
off-shore, and that's when they found us, about two hours after we crashed.
NOVA: How did they rescue you?
Knowlton: When the Coast Guard jet spotted us, they tilted their wings to show
they had seen us and then took off. They then diverted a Coast Guard helicopter
to us, which did an airlift by lowering down a one-person basket. Fortunately,
we had this guy on board who had run a whale watch boat for many years and had
had been in a couple of airlift situations. He said, "Whatever you do, don't
touch the basket until it touches the water, because you'll get a shock that
will throw you off this raft." I guess the rotors build up a lot of static
electricity. The Coast Guard knew that too, of course, and they dipped the
basket in the water before bringing it close enough for us to touch. Even with
that, the guy who touched it still got a shock each time.
I was number two into the basket—women went first. Before bringing me up,
however, the helicopter guys dunked me in the ocean. I don't know if it was to
straighten out the cable or what, but I found myself being put underwater for
several seconds before finally being hauled up and brought onto the chopper. It
was almost as freaky as the first time I'd gone underwater.
When they had all five us on board, they gave us blankets, cranked up the heat,
and took us to the Coast Guard station in Savannah. The press was there, a
couple of TV stations and whatnot, waiting for us to get ashore. But the Coast
Guard threw us into hot showers, gave us Coast Guard uniforms and boots to
wear, and had us checked out by the doctor. They really took care of us.
I called my boss and my father to tell them what had happened, because I knew
this would get on the news, and I didn't want them to find out through the
television. Finally, we had to have a press conference, which was sort of
NOVA: Did you have a fear of flying after that?
Knowlton: The Coast Guard told us you've got to get right back in the saddle,
and that evening a couple of the pilots from Amelia Island flew up and took us
home. For about a year after that, every time I heard a little engine noise
that sounded odd, or every time I told the story to anybody, my body would
tense up. It was a subconscious thing, but it definitely stayed with me for
quite a while.
NOVA: What advice would you give others who find themselves in a similar
Knowlton: Well, just try and maintain your cool. I mean, the fact that nobody
panicked was really helpful, because if we had to deal with somebody freaking
out, that would have been a real problem.
Photos: (1) Amy Knowlton; (2) Dyess Air Force Base, Texas.
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