Two men share story of survival after float plane flips upside down on Skwentna River
Sunday afternoon, a float plane flies back from a remote moose hunting camp at low-altitude due to bad weather. Suddenly, without a cough or a splutter, the engine cuts out.
Dr. Timothy Skala was at the controls next to friend, Jim Plumley. Skala says he had only seconds to act as he flew over Skwentna River. “We had literally seconds from the engine quitting until we were in the river and if we did anything wrong we wouldn't be here,” said Skala.
He managed to safely land on the river but the adventure for the two men was far from over. “That’s when the excitement started,” said Skala.
Skala sent emergency messages over the radio confirming the plane’s position as the strong current dragged the plane down the river. “That river grabbed us like a bullet,” said Plumley.
Plumley got out of the cockpit and tried to use the plane's line to stop themselves. Skala warned his friend that they were coming in sideways to a sweeper and “there’s nothing I can do.”
Skala managed to radio out that they were 1.5 nautical miles from Skwentna Airport on the south side of the river. The wing tip caught the water and flipped the plane upside down.
Both men were lucky not to get pulled under as they inflated their survival vests and swam to to shore. The weather was against them, it was pouring with rain and their serious survival gear was stuck in the river. “I didn’t know a human being could shake that hard,” said Skala.
They sat on the riverbank, desperate to start a fire to keep warm.
Thankfully for the two men, their radio calls were being heard. Cindi Herman, the owner operator of Skwentna Roadhouse, monitors emergency radio calls.
Herman alerted the Kenai Flight Service and contacted friends and neighbors who owned boats. She then jumped in a side-by-side to see how she could help.
On her way, she ran into two young men in boats, they asked if they could help.“I said absolutely, the more the merrier,” said Herman.
A friend in a Super Cub circled overhead to confirm the plane's position. Herman says the Wasilla based pilot put himself at risk flying for so long over such a remote location.
Despite the risks, the rescuers found Plumley and Skala quickly and brought them to safety. “Within twenty minutes of the emergency call we had both guys in front of a fire warming up,” said Herman.
Noreen Price, an Aviation Accident Investigator with the National Transport Safety Board, confirmed they are aware of the incident.
Price explains, the NTSB is not investigating the incident as an aircraft accident because it doesn’t fit within their legally prescribed definition of an accident under 49 CFR 830.2, the law that governs notification and reporting of aircraft accidents.
However you define the incident, the two men put their survival down to their rescuers, quick thinking and taking survival lessons seriously. "You know, it didn't hurt that I was in the Boy Scouts once upon a time and like they say, always be prepared," said Skala.
A couple of days passed and the plane was taken out of the river. Skala is currently waiting for a helicopter to bring it back to Anchorage. The plane is a secondary concern for the two men who feel lucky to be alive.
“You can always get another airplane but you can't get another best friend,” said Skala.