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Amy Knowlton Amy Knowlton
Survivor Stories

Fire | Plane: Amy Knowlton | Ship
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.

Cessna 337 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.

NOVA: There was no fuel in the main tank?

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 down."

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 were.

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 this.

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 open?

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 surreal.

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 situation?

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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