Peril in the Deep. A Shark Attack Survivor’s Lessons of Flying Over Ocean Waters. A Seawind Pilot’s Story

Steve loves his amazing flying amphibian, the Super Seawind.

Peril is in the deep: On a Panama beach in 1967 a seventeen foot man-eating Tiger Shark cruising along the coast sensed splashing nearby and a like a torpedo to its target, turned and shot straight for three American soldiers frolicking chest high in tropical bioluminescent Pacific waters. Today, only one survives to tell of the horror visited that evening just after dark and shares some lessons to over ocean water flying.

Oceans cover 71% of the surface area of our planet and contain 99% of the living space on earth. They also contain creatures, microscopic to massive. Some are no threat to man and some are highly adapted and effective predators. Until that night in 1967, I never knew what potential danger lurked within these great seas. Now I truly understand the warning; “what you don’t know can kill you!”

The perils of flying over frigid seas: whenever I’m over ocean water I’m thinking what series of actions do I take if the engine quits and fails to re-start? While flying my amphibious Seawind, my worries are few because I know the Seawind can land safely in up to two feet seas – even in the ocean. As a flying boat, I have lots of time to prepare for a rescue – including the airplane itself. I would not have to worry about the plane flipping over, drowning, or destroying my Seawind. None of that is so in fixed gear airplanes. The likely scenario is that the airplane would flip onto its back the moment the wheels dug into the water and I along with my passengers would be under water scrambling for air and an exit that couldn’t be used until the water filled the plane and the pressures equalized.

My next concern is hypothermia. Flying north of 30 degrees latitude it’s a good guess that anyone immersed in ocean water would likely develop hypothermia within an hour. Sharks aside, you don’t want to be immersed in cold ocean waters because your likelihood of survival drops dramatically. It is far better to carry an inflatable raft that will support everyone on board. In it you can stay warm, call rescue and survive worsening weather. In my Seawind, I have mooring pins I can attach my three person raft to so I can be spotted much faster by rescue as my 406 megahertz emergency locator, ELT, beams out my position.  My other concerns are keeping warm and dry and having at least a one day food and water supply – just in case. I keep an emergency kit on my Seawind at all times. So what about non amphibious airplanes?

Whenever I fly over ocean as I occasionally do to Martha’s Vineyard in a Piper Warrior either VFR or IFR I pack and load the same equipment from my Seawind plus a change of clothes in a dry bag. If the stuff completely hits the fan like an engine fire forcing an immediate landing I’m hoping that I will be conscious and able to extract and inflate the raft and climb aboard – all very difficult to accomplish when in the deep with waves may knock me around. I know that as soon as I’m in the water my survival timer would start ticking down. My muscles would cool and become weaker minute by minute and my judgment would decline with temperature.

You never know what’s in the deep. Here a Killer Whale is curious and close.

VFR advice; always file a flight plan, open it and get flight following for at least that portion of the flight that is over water. This way ATC knows exactly where you are in an emergency which translates into a speedy rescue. Also, be sure your ELT is current. Request a high enough altitude to make a land fall should your engine fail. Your chances of survival are much improved with an emergency landing on terra firma. Oh yes, avoid flying at night for lots of reasons. Most of all, you can’t see when you’re going to hit the water. Therefore, a crash is far more likely than a safe landing even if you’re flying a Seawind or similar amphibious airplane.

Attitude: “It can’t happen to me” is an attitude I’ve felt and I’ve heard expressed by people inside and outside the aviation community. What they’re saying is either they are overconfident or that they’re complacent and choose not to put the effort in to protect the lives of everyone on board. Finding yourself in cold ocean water leaves you few options especially close to darkness. Yes, the odds of it happening are very rare, but so too was my shark attack. Murphy’s Law prevailed. The risk may be low but as I painfully learned, the price for disregarding it could be very high. Hence, if something so rare could happen to me then some vastly more common peril could happen to you.

What happened to me? By now you probably want to know by now how I survived that nightmarish attack by a tiger shark. First, I had unwittingly put my life on the line by doing all the things that attract sharks. Splashing in ocean water at night is like ringing the dinner alarm. I now know sharks are electrically wired to sense flailing fish or mammals in water a mile away. My splashing made me a biological beacon as effective as any lighthouse to a mariner. With water lighting up like a thousand Christmas lights on every stroke, my two friends and I were having a ton of fun splashing and streaking it – until I saw the bioluminescent silhouette of a massive fish streaking straight for me from off shore! At that moment I performed the only remaining shark defense I had left; I froze like a log on the rare chance that a man-eater might mistake me for one.

A second later the shark struck me with massive force– knocking me down in the water enough so I could see a massive body passing by my face. She (because I now know only females reach that size) had used with her gill sensors that combined smell and taste instead of her powerful jaws to tear off my flesh and determine if I was something she wanted to eat. That decided she cut an immediate 360 degree right turn. Now I thought I was surely a dead man. I was no match for this super predator. To this shark I was just another soon-to-be-had meal. As her body passed I surfaced and in the wake of her dorsal fin I screamed “shark” repeatedly. Like me, my two friends immediately began swimming for shore about 30 feet away. Due to its speed the shark couldn’t stop but proceeded to complete a wide turn and rapidly closing on me. Then, with its massive bone-crushing jaws it lunged to within a foot of my trailing leg just as I took my first running step onto the beach. With me unreachable it then snapped its head and bee-lined for my 1st and then 2nd friend who were still coming out of the water. They too narrowly escaped. Tragically they would die later of consequences of the War with Vietnam; one by drugs and one by a freakish motorcycle accident a week after returning from the War.

Less a two foot patch of skin from my hip to my shoulder on my right side mirroring the height of the tiger shark, I narrowly escaped that dark, dark night. Call me lucky. Never again will I rely on luck instead of preparedness – especially in an ocean where risks are unfathomable and where there’s real peril in the deep.

Steve Wightman

Super Seawind, N71RJ, pilot.

One Comment:

  1. Super shark storytelling.

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