LIHUE — The owner of the plane that ran out of gas after leaving Hanapepe and crashed at sea on Sunday short of Oahu credits the pilot with keeping a cool head under pressure.
“He is a good pilot and I feel what he did was extraordinary,” said Barbers Point Flight School owner Reggie Perry.
The Oahu pilot flew to Kauai alone where he picked up three passengers. An initial report from the Federal Aviation Administration notes that a single-engine, piston-driven Cessna Skyhawk was making a return trip from Hanapepe to Barbers Point Flight School on Oahu when the aircraft ditched into the ocean 11 miles from Kapolei. The four people on board, three adults and a child, were rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard.
A Coast Guard 14th District press release said the plane was 30 miles west of Oahu when the pilot radioed an in-flight emergency with low fuel and a possibility of having to ditch at 6:18 p.m. The plane disappeared from radar nine minutes later.
A Coast Guard MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crew located and hoisted all four passengers. They were flown to the Coast Guard Air Station Barbers Point and transferred to emergency medical services. The condition of the passengers was not available late Monday.
The plane is registered to Barbers Point Flight School, LLC, out of John Rodgers Field in Kapolei.
In addition to flight training, the school also conducts air tours and plane rentals through Barbers Point Aviation Services.
Perry said the pilot’s spouse was not one of the passengers. She was at Barbers Point waiting for the party to land and said the passengers were either family or friends and the child is an infant.
“He probably went over there to pick those people up,” Perry said.
It was nothing less than a miracle that no one was lost with the plane in the mishap, Perry said, who described the male pilot as a 36-year-old Oahu resident currently serving on active duty in the U.S. Army. The pilot appears to be in good spirits but may be experiencing some shock from the incident, he added.
“He is a student of ours and a very good pilot,” Perry said.
The pilot recently completed flight training at Barbers Point, where he earned his private license. He had block time remaining on his account and Perry assumed this was a local flight to use up the remaining hours.
The two said hello as the pilot checked out the plane. There was nothing wrong with flying the rental to Kauai, Perry said, as student pilots are required to complete cross-country flights, which in Hawaii means flying to other islands.
“He is already licensed and going to Kauai is a none issue,” Perry said.
Perry said that it was perhaps the pilot’s experience under pressure as a non-commissioned officer in the U.S. Army, that “helped him to keep it all together” to glide the plane to the best possible water landing and ensure everyone on board survived.
“A pilot with low flight time and who is not able to draw on experience was still able to do what he did to take care of himself and to take care of his passengers.”
Perry does know that the pilot departed Oahu alone. Pilots that are licensed out of the school are entered into a database as being compliant with rental and insurance procedures, he said.
The plane belongs to the flight school and this was the first reported incident in five years of operation, Perry said. The planes are well maintained and he believes it was in good working order.
Perry can’t look into the matter further or call the pilot until the FAA investigation is completed. As the owner of the plane that would be considered a conflict of interest.
“I spoke with the chief pilot who said it was a windy day,” Perry said. “I don’t know how much fuel he had.”
FAA Honolulu FSDO-13 notes that the Cessna 172 registration number is N422BP, a 1977 model with a single Lycoming 0-320 series piston engine and an inspection validation through Jan. 31, 2017.
According to online data at Flightware.com, the plane made the same round-trip flight on Saturday, departing Kalaeloa at 12:28 p.m. and arrived at Port Allen 59 minutes later. The plane departed Port Allen for Barbers Point at 5:45 p.m. and landed 54 minutes later at 6:39 p.m. The plane was flying at roughly 118 knots or 135 mph at various altitudes between 1,400 and 4,000 feet.
Brian Fitchett, a flight tour pilot with Air Adventures in Lihue, also operates a flight with Cessna 172 and 182 planes. He said that no one will really know what happened until the FAA investigation is completed, but would say that whenever a plane runs out of fuel, it is usually pilot error unless there is leak.
A Cessna 172 carries 40 gallons and burns about 10 gallons per hour, Fitchett said. If the plane left Oahu with a full tank, he should have made the two-hour round-trip flight with a half a tank to spare.
There is no refueling station at Port Allen and planes fly over to Lihue to refuel, he added. There does not appear to be any record of the Oahu plane refueling at Lihue.
That leaves two probable scenarios. The plane did not leave Oahu with a full tank but still tried to make it back without refueling. The fuel gauge could have been incorrect, but pilots almost always manually check the true fuel level with a stick.
“This is just pure speculation, but if the pilot left Barbers Point and didn’t visually check the fuel, and didn’t stop at Lihue to refuel, then he may have pushed it a bit on the return,” Fitchett said. “I never saw the plane at Lihue, so I assume that it went directly to Port Allen, and probably tried to push it on the way back instead of refueling.”
When planning a flight, the pilot will allow for at least 10 hours of fuel if the destination requires eight, he added. Even with weight restrictions and strong headwinds, a 172 should still make it with a full tank, he added.
A 172 flying slow into a strong head wind should take no more than one hour and 15 minutes to cross between Oahu and Kauai, he said. Even if it took that long to fly both ways there should be about an hour left of fuel.
“Whenever I fly over the channel I fill the tank going both ways,” Fitchett said. “You just never know if you are going to get rerouted.”
A newly licensed private pilot typically has from 40 to 60 hours.
“That isn’t that much,” Fitchett said.