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Two Pilots Were Flying from Oahu to Hawaii—Then They Heard the Engines Go Quiet

They swam through jellyfish, the threat of sharks and 25 kilometres of exhaustion before being sighted.

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Sydnie Uemoto and her co-pilot Dave McMahonPhoto: Oliver Koning/Reader's Digest

The pilots who crashed into the sea

As her twin-engine Piper Apache sliced through the postcard-blue sky 1,500 metres above the Pacific Ocean, 23-year-old pilot Sydnie Uemoto heard the sound—a subtle change in timbre as the engines began to strain and rattle.

Her co-pilot, 26-year-old Dave McMahon, heard it too. Until that point, the two-hour flight from Oahu to Hawaii had been uneventful. Uemoto and McMahon were both relatively new to the job, strangers to each other, looking for flight time and taking a quick trip with no passengers. When they heard the sound, shortly after 3 p.m. on July 14, 2016, McMahon brought the plane down to 1,000 metres, where things seemed to run more smoothly. Then, without warning, the pilots lost power to the right engine. A moment later, the left one went. Sitting in their metal compartment high above the ocean, they heard what every pilot dreads: quiet. It took them a moment to process the fact that they might crash. (These are things your pilot won’t tell you.)

The next few minutes were a blur of activity. As they began to lose altitude, Uemoto and McMahon powered through the items on the emergency checklist—turning on fuel pumps, pushing the throttles to full—which can sometimes restart the engines. Nothing worked. Following his emergency training, McMahon handed the controls to Uemoto and, fighting a rush of warm air, propped open the cockpit door. Now they wouldn’t get trapped inside after the marine crash landing. At about 300 metres and falling quickly, Uemoto made their last distress call before they crashed. “We’re 40 kilometres northwest of Kona,” she said to air traffic control. “We’re going down.” (These facts about flying will help you stay calm on your next flight.)

Uemoto gripped the controls. In pilot school, they teach you about ditching a plane, but you never actually practice dumping your ride into the ocean. She knew the chances of survival were slim. If she hit the water at too steep an angle, the force of the collision would kill them. If she allowed one wing tip to hit the water first, the plane could cartwheel uncontrollably and be torn to pieces.

Just land as if you’re touching down on the ground, Uemoto told herself. As the plane hurtled toward the ocean, she forced herself to imagine a runway stretching along the choppy surface of the water. The air roared in her ears as the ocean rose up to meet them. At the last moment, with the Pacific filling her field of vision, she pulled back on the yoke, nudging the Apache’s nose up a little. Then everything flashed white as the plane made contact.

The aircraft crashed into the surface with a shuddering impact, water spraying over the windshield as the plane plunged into the ocean. McMahon and Uemoto were thrown forward violently, as though they’d been rear-ended by a tractor-trailer. In a daze, McMahon opened his eyes. Getting his bearings, he realized that he was, miraculously, okay. Uemoto was slumped next to him in the cockpit, shocked and bleeding but still conscious. Then McMahon felt the water pouring through the open door, and a new realization hit him: they had to escape, fast. He unbuckled his seat belt and climbed out onto the wing.

“Sydnie, get out!” McMahon called.

She looked at him blearily. With her hands on the controls, Uemoto hadn’t braced herself for impact and had slammed forward, breaking her nose.

She rose to her feet unsteadily and felt the blood pouring down her face, bait for the sharks that prowl the waters around Hawaii. “Get out!” McMahon called again. The water was knee-high inside the plane, and soon, she would be submerged.

“What about the sharks?” she asked McMahon. (Here’s how to survive a shark attack.)

“You can’t think about that!” he answered. Uemoto trudged through water toward the door, picking up two life preservers along the way. By the time she’d climbed out onto the wing, the water was covering the seats of the aircraft. As the Apache sank, the pair jumped into the ocean. Within seconds, the plane disappeared beneath the surface. The ocean had erased all signs of human life except for the two small figures bobbing in the vastness of the Pacific.

As the waves broke around them, McMahon felt an odd sense of calm. He pulled the tab on his life preserver. The seal holding the CO2 cartridge fell off, leaving a gaping hole in the now-useless flap of plastic. But even that didn’t faze him. A laid-back Oahu native, he had grown up in the water—surfing, canoeing and competing for years on the swim team. He and Uemoto had done the impossible—they crashed into the ocean and survived. It was a clear, beautiful day, and the Coast Guard knew where they were. Now they just had to stay put, treading water in the warm sea until they were rescued.

Uemoto, however, was a wreck—crying and terrified. McMahon tried to calm her, keeping the two of them turned away from the waves. “Tell me about your family,” he said. “Do you have any siblings?”

“I have a sister,” she said between gulps of air. Family was the reason Uemoto had been on that flight. The young pilot was intensely focused on her career, taking on as many flights as she could during the week and working as a baggage handler for Hawaiian Airlines on weekends. That day was her father’s birthday, but rather than take the whole day off, she had decided to work in the morning and then rent a plane to fly home that afternoon, getting in some of her required hours behind the controls of a multi-engine aircraft. When her original co-pilot couldn’t make it, McMahon, who also wanted to log time on a twin engine, agreed to join her.

“When will the Coast Guard get here?” Uemoto asked.

“They’re coming,” McMahon said. “We’re just going to float here.”

After a couple of hours, McMahon’s prediction seemed to come true. A Navy plane appeared in the sky, circling the area. It flew directly overhead as McMahon waved his life preserver, overjoyed. And then, without any sign of recognition, the aircraft continued on its way. Salvation had arrived, then disappeared over the horizon.

Over the next several hours, plane after plane flew overhead, circling in search of the lost pilots. Each time, McMahon and Uemoto did what they could to be seen. And each time, the potential rescuers continued on without spotting them.

Plus: 10 Real Travel Disasters That Could Happen to You

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Sydnie Uemoto and her co-pilot Dave McMahonPhoto: Oliver Koning/Reader's Digest

With the sun growing dim, McMahon’s calm began to crack. We’re going to have to spend the night on the water, he thought. Uemoto saw the fear on his face. She felt the current shift direction, the waves moving southwest now. A Hawaiian native, Uemoto knew what all locals know: there is nothing south of Hawaii until you hit Antarctica, 12,000 kilometres away. She and McMahon made the decision quickly. They looked to the outlines of the volcanoes at Kailua-Kona, 40 kilometres away, and swam toward them, moving against the current.

By approximately 10 p.m. that night, Uemoto’s legs began to cramp, so she propelled herself with her arms, letting her legs drag behind her. Soon enough, McMahon was faring even worse. More than eight hours on the water had left him exhausted. He, too, cramped up and began shivering uncontrollably uncontrollably in the breezy night air. While McMahon had been the one supporting Uemoto in those first few hours, she now took over. Swimming on her stomach, she had McMahon wrap his arms around her knees. He rested his head on the back of her legs while they swam in tandem—Uemoto pulling McMahon with her arms as he kicked. But even with that support, it slowly dawned on him: if we keep going like this, I’m going to drown.

“Sydnie, I need to stop,” he said.

Uemoto unhooked herself from McMahon. In a desperate attempt to find some way to help, she began to examine his life preserver and found it had two separate air compartments. Both sides were deflated, but McMahon hadn’t tried the second CO2 cartridge. She gently tugged the tab, which caused that half of the vest to fill with air. Then it started to leak, and the second CO2 cartridge fell off. McMahon stuffed his fingers into the two holes where the cartridges had ripped through the plastic, forming a seal. By exhaling each breath into the air tube, he found he could keep his vest inflated on one side, providing just enough support to keep him afloat. He wrapped his free hand around Uemoto’s ankle and rested, gathering his strength, while she pulled them toward the shore. “Just hang on,” she called out.

As Uemoto swam, hour after hour, a feeling of tranquility came over her. The two had begun as colleagues who had never exchanged a sentence, but in the quiet of the night, they had become partners. To be alone in the ocean was terrifying. But to be with someone else somehow made the ordeal bearable.

“Hey, Dave?” Uemoto said softly at one point. She hadn’t heard from him in a little bit.

“Hey, Sydnie,” he called back.

“You doing good?”

“I’m doing good.”

It was while they were still in this position, McMahon clinging to her legs, that Uemoto felt a flash of pain. In the moonlight, she saw something white and silky clinging to her forearm: a Hawaiian box jellyfish.

Within seconds, the animal’s toxins can cause nausea, loss of consciousness, muscle problems and difficulty breathing. And now, in her weakened state, Uemoto was plowing through a swarm of them. Moments after the first sting, she felt the venom work its way through her body. Her heart felt as if it were beating more slowly; she gasped for air as her muscles seized. Then she fell unconscious.

“Sydnie!” McMahon yelled, frantically patting her face. She was out cold, her body trembling. The male pilot clutched her to keep her head above the surface, treading water and ignoring his couple of stings. “Sydnie, are you okay?” he asked over and over again.

Uemoto’s eyes fluttered open. Her body relaxed. “I think maybe we should just take a break,” she said feebly. They floated for a few minutes, then she said, “I am not hanging out with these jellyfish anymore.”

“Let’s get a move on,” McMahon said. He hooked himself back onto her legs, and Uemoto somehow found the strength to swim toward land once again.

When the sun rose on July 15, a beautiful sight greeted the two pilots: the island of Hawaii, green, majestic and closer than they had dared to dream. Despite the jellyfish and exhaustion, they had made remarkable progress overnight. (Here are 13 reasons to visit Hawaii.)

Throughout the morning, cute little black fish schooled beneath them, companions on their journey. In any other circumstance, Uemoto thought, this would all be quite pleasant.

Suddenly, the black fish were gone, frightened off, and Uemoto spotted a shadow up ahead.

McMahon saw it, too—a shark, about three metres beneath the surface. “What do we do?” Uemoto asked, panicked. “Just keep looking forward,” said McMahon, who told himself that the creature was simply curious. “Don’t splash, and keep swimming.” The shark circled them methodically for about 30 minutes, then disappeared. Half an hour later, it was back. Now McMahon’s stomach dropped. We crashed and survived; we made it through the night, he thought. There’s no way this is going to end with a shark attack. (Check out our experts’ guide for navigating life’s scariest perils.)

“What are you going to do if it comes close?” asked Uemoto.

“I’m going to kick it in the eye,” said McMahon evenly.

And then, just as quietly as it had appeared, the shark swam off again, and Uemoto and McMahon were alone once more. They were 16 kilometres from shore now, the details of the island coming into focus. They made a pact: they would be home by sunset. “Do you want to go out to eat afterwards?” Uemoto joked. “McDonald’s?”

A few minutes before noon, they saw the familiar orange shape of a Coast Guard helicopter. It whizzed overhead, to their right, and the two of them waved their hands. Like before, the aircraft disappeared—another agonizing near miss.

After almost 20 hours, Uemoto’s body was done. She had simply run out of power. At a certain stage, your mind entertains an idea: what if I just gave up? She was reaching that point, but then she heard the whir of the helicopter again. “It’s coming!” she shouted.

“This is it, Syd,” McMahon said. “This is the one God sent for us.”

McMahon and Uemoto waved frenetically. The helicopter banked toward them. They had been seen.

Uemoto and McMahon burst into tears and hugged in the water. Alone, either of them would have died. But together, they had made it. “You know, from not knowing you at all, you kind of surpassed all levels of friendship,” Uemoto told McMahon.

Later—after the rescuers had fed McMahon every last sandwich in the helicopter, after doctors had tended to Uemoto’s broken nose and jellyfish stings and she’d finally been able to wish her father a happy birthday—the young pilots, who have remained close, would recall an emotional turning point. It occurred maybe 30 minutes after they’d crashed into the water. Uemoto was panicked, fearing the worst. McMahon began to comfort the stranger floating beside him. “We’re going to be good,” he said, though he had no idea what kind of journey was in front of them. “This is a story we’re going to tell our children and grandchildren.”

Want more suspenseful survival stories? Check out Drama in Real Life: Polar Expedition Gone Horribly Wrong

Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada