AIR SAFETY

Florida pilot tells survival story after Key West takeoff ends in Everglades crash-landing

 

cteproff@MiamiHerald.com

As a power boat racer, Daniel Lawrence knows how important it is to stay calm under pressure.

So when he started to feel a slight vibration in his single engine plane as he flew home to Sarasota from Key West Monday morning, he simply went through a check list to see what was going on.

It didn’t take him long to realize he had to make a very important decision: Where was the best place to land?

“I knew it was escalating and I didn’t have a lot of time,” he said.

The student pilot — who began flying earlier this year — said he didn’t want to land on water and decided the Everglades was his best option.

After scanning the landscape from the air, he found a semi-flat patch of marsh, slowed the plane down as much as he could and landed, managing to keep the plane upright.

When the Coast Guard — who received a call from the Miami Missions Air Traffic Control Center — found him about an hour later, he had placed his luggage on top of the plane and was standing on the wing waiting to be rescued.

“When I landed I said to myself ‘I am alive,’ ” said Lawrence, adding he quickly got out of the plane because water started to seep into the cockpit. “It was such a soft landing I didn’t hit a thing.”

Coast Guard Command Duty Officer Michael Mullen said skill wasn’t the only thing that helped Lawrence land the plane safely — he also had luck on his side.

“If I was him, I would’ve gone and bought a Lotto ticket,” he said.

“Not all of these incidents turn out so good.”

According to the National Transportation Safety Board there have been 12 fatal crashes in Florida since the beginning of the year. And this week there was also another bizarre case where a pilot made a Mayday call, reporting that a plane door was open and that his passenger had fallen out.

On Saturday, investigators reported they had found the body of Gerardo Nales, the man who apparently plummeted to his death from a plane in midair on Thursday. They were awaiting positive identity results from the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office.

Lawrence, who has been racing boats for 12 years, had just won first place in a race at the Super Boat International Key West Offshore World Championships.

As the throttle man of his boat — named the Hulk — he also took second place overall.

It was the first time he had taken his Piper Cherokee plane by himself to a race, he said. He had bought the plane in June to learn how to fly.

“It was something I always wanted to do,” he said.

He took off at about 7:30 a.m. and was looking forward to getting home.

Then, about an hour into his flight, he noticed something was wrong — that’s when all of his training kicked in.

He had spent countless hours with an instructor learning how to glide, how to calculate his distance to the ground if the engine quit, and how to land as softly as possible.

According to a flight instructor and pilot, Adriel Anderson, the fact that Lawrence was a student pilot may have worked in his favor.

“That’s when things are the freshest,” he said.

Anderson, who has been a pilot for 17 years, said anyone who is learning how to fly a plane practices how to handle situations including engine failures.

“Of course, it’s traumatic when it happens, but that is what we train for,” he said.

Stephen Hedges from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a group with more than 400,000 members who are plane owners or pilots, said it seemed that Lawrence did everything right. “Landing upside could have been a huge problem,” he said.

The plane remains lodged in the mud and muck, but Lawrence said he is told the NTSB will investigate what happened.

As for flying again, Lawrence didn’t hesitate.

“I am not afraid to fly again,” he said. “I was determined to survive and I did.”

This article includes comments from the Public Insight Network, an online community of people who have agreed to share their opinions with the Miami Herald and WLRN. Become a source at MiamiHerald.com/insight.

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