On Sunday September 9, a single engine amphibious Cessna was flying along the California coast with a pilot and single passenger—father and son Stanley and Stanford Shaw—looking forward to arriving in British Columbia in the next several hours. The plane’s engine, however, lost power just off the central California coast near San Simeon. The two men, Stanley (77) and Stanford (36), plunged, along with their aircraft, into the rough seas. Luckily both men were uninjured during the crash. Their ordeal was far from over, however.
They were stranded in the frigid swells with nothing but their powerless pontoon plane to protect them. The impact of the crash had debilitated the aircraft even further; the crash had forced the doors of the plane to break off their hinges. Water filled the cockpit as the Shaws hoped for rescue before the plane was subsumed by the sea.
According to a report by the Associated Press, the men were in a Cessna 185 Skywagon pontoon plane that they had owned for nearly 20 years. Stanley had a long history as a pilot and all his skills were needed on this September day to land the powerless plane. They had departed from Camarillo and were headed to their annual fishing destination in Canada.
Stanford told reporters that on their descent that they ‘‘‘hit three times. It broke the doors off the hinges. We hit the first time and bounced way up in the air. We hit again and on the third one, we hit like a belly flop.’” Luckily the plane’s beacon alerted authorities of their location. Of course, rescue was not immediate. The drama continued.
A California Highway Patrol plane identified their position and circled overhead but was powerless to stop the plane’s imminent demise into the Pacific. CHP Pilot Mark Milham told a reporter from a San Luis Obispo news station that “‘the airplane was still floating on the floats, however the floats were heavily damaged due to the landing.” The pontoons offered some relief but frustration was felt all around; the officers above could do nothing but offer reassuring words to the men down below. “They knew that their airplane was in danger of overturning at any moment” Milham continued. Though the men were uninjured, they were far from safe.
Approximately two hours after crashing, a Coast Guard helicopter and rescue crews arrived at the scene. One report indicates that the plane was seconds from going under when the two men finally ascended.
Because the cockpit was now completely flooded, they were rescued standing on the tip of the one dry wing. The other wing was completely underwater.
The Shaws were uninjured in what could have been a fatal experience. They could easily have been killed on impact as many in small plane crashes often are. And even though they survived the initial impact at a high rate of speed into large waves, the plane’s integrity, though damaged, also contributed to their survival. Had the plane been damaged even more seriously, the two would have been dropped into the cold central California waters and suffered, perhaps, fatal hypothermia. A combination of luck, skilled piloting, and a heroic rescue effort made the difference between life and death in this California aviation accident.
This article was written by Adam Abel on behalf of California aviation attorney Gerald Sterns.