How difficult would it be to find a basketball in an area of the ocean slightly larger than the city of Dallas? That was the job facing the U.S. Coast Guard 7th District Southeast over the weekend. Cutters, helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft spent 21 hours unsuccessfully searching for 68-year old Robert Hopkins, a pilot for a Florida air cargo company who ditched in the Atlantic on Friday afternoon, about 13 miles off the coast of Miami.
After failing to find Capt. Hopkins by midday on Saturday, the search was called off as Hopkins was presumed dead. The flight’s first officer, 28-year old Rolland Silva was recovered by a Coast Guard helicopter shortly after the plane went into the water and was taken to the hospital in Miami.
Describing the difficulty of the search, the Coast Guard Commander Gabe Somma said, Essentially, you’re looking for “a human head and maybe some arms. It’s like looking for a basketball floating on the ocean. So it’s difficult.”
The Conquest Air Cargo twin-engine Convair C-131B was returning to Miami-Opa Locka Executive Airport from a daily flight to Lyndon Pindling Airport in the Bahamas when the pilot declared an emergency, according to a statement from the company. He tried to ditch in the Atlantic. News video from the scene shows the plane broke into several pieces.
The tragedy called to mind a story I wrote for The New York Times about the very first airliner to ditch in the ocean with no fatalities, Pan Am Flight 6 in October 1956. In that case, it was the presence of the Coast Guard Cutter Pontchartrain sailing below the crippled airplane that helped assure a happy outcome.
Between the captains of both vessels, the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser and the 254-foot cutter, a plan was developed to fly the plane in a circuit until sunrise and then put it into the Pacific as close to the ship as possible. Watching the big plane hit the water, many of the coasties on the Pontchartrain were certain nobody survived, according to Doak Walker who was on the ship.
“It was so sad,’’ Walker told me. “We knew nobody could survive that.” And yet, rescue boats launched from the Pontchartrain sped toward the plane and rescued all 35 people aboard. (The rescue was filmed, see link at the end of this post.)
The routes we took were over the cutter and we were able to communicate with them, Frank Garcia, the flight engineer on Flight 6 told me when I interviewed him in 2017. “It was part of the safety system administered by the Coast Guard.”
In the most famous airliner ditching, when US Airways Flight 1549 landed in New York’s Hudson River, the rapid arrival of boats once again contributed to the incident’s survivability. So one would think that airplanes and ships would have further developed their symbiotic relationship, but one would be wrong.
That is the challenge facing James Stabile, a former United captain and the vice president of Aeronautical Data Systems. His company has developed an app in use by several business and private air operators that lets pilots know what ships are below them, in the case they need to ditch.
The app consists of an iPad and a VHF radio, a financial investment of about $5000, Stabile says, but one which provides pilots with a real-time view of ships within a range of 200 miles and the ability to send out a distress message or communicate with those ships using channel 16, the international distress frequency.
Pilots tell me making the decision to put a plane in the water is the hardest decision they will make. But it is not the last decision. Like the crew of Pan Am 6, a slew of planning and strategetic decisions followed – all of which was critical to saving lives. There’s a lesson there.
At any point in time around the world there are 220-thousand ships at sea, Stabile told me. After news of the Conquest ditching broke, he went back to see what was in the water off the coast of South Florida on Friday. There were several boats and a cargo ship.
“My thought is, these guys if they had our equipment on board and ditched by the ship and alerted the ship they were ditching, it would have cut down on time and would have been a more confined localized area,” helping narrow the search and rescue zone he said.
This is particularly relevant considering that the biggest growth in commercial aviation over the past few decades has been in the developing world with a corresponding increase in long-haul over-water flights.
“We’re trying to give the pilot every last fighting chance,” Stabile told me. “We’re saying ‘Here’s your radar. Here’s a stupid handheld radio. If you use it the right way it is going to be your best friend. Here’s an app that will display, if there are 10 ships, pick out the right one and call them.'”
Stabile acknowledges much is still not known about the specific circumstances on board the Conquest flight or even if the airplane was controllable. He does know that at a time when communication technology connects everything and everybody, the fact that planes and ships remain in separate spheres while transiting the same routes makes little sense.