TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- If not for the actions of two fast-thinking and well-trained Citizen Airmen, the last Saturday of summer may have ended in tragedy at Clear Lake, California.
Capt. Jared Wahleithner and 1st Lt. Chris Dempsey were ferrying passengers to shore Sept. 17, during the annual Clear Lake Seaplane Splash In, when a small amphibious aircraft crashed during an attempted landing.
Wahleithner and Dempsey, both KC-10 Extender pilots with the 349th Air Mobility Wing at Travis Air Force Base, California, knew the Grumman Widgeon was in trouble when they noticed its landing gear was still extended as it descended toward the water.
“I saw him coming in about a quarter mile away,” Dempsey said. “I got maybe one or two waves off, then I just said, ‘Jared, look’.”
The pilots leapt to action as the aircraft’s landing gear slammed into the water at about 90 miles per hour, flipping the seaplane nearly twice before it stopped with just its tail visible in about 14-feet of blue water.
“It only took us about 30 seconds to get to them,” said Wahleithner, “but it felt like an eternity.”
Their biggest concern was how many passengers were on board, and how to get them all to safety. Not knowing where people might start surfacing, Wahleithner stopped their boat about 10 feet from the aircraft. Fortunately, the pilot surfaced first and told them he had only one passenger, who also came to the surface, but was clearly in distress and having trouble keeping his head above water.
“The pilot was fairly coherent,” said Wahleithner, “but he was obviously stunned by the impact, so we asked him repeatedly how many people were on board.”
After throwing floatation devices to the men, they were able to assist the gravely injured passenger, as members of the sheriff’s department arrived and pulled the pilot to safety.
While Wahleithner ensured they didn’t collide with the sheriff’s boat, Dempsey pulled the passenger onto their boat’s swim platform. When he saw the man’s mangled legs, he knew the situation was dire.
“Bones were protruding and he was losing a lot of blood,” said Dempsey. It was time to put their Air Force training to use.
The pilots had a quick talk about what level of care they needed to give, before they started moving the man, not wanting to injure him further if he had neck or spinal injuries.
“Chris started giving first response care, putting pressure on the most severe bleeding and making sure he was stable,” said Wahleithner. “We were very concerned about his blood loss. We knew we needed to get him to shore quickly.”
Wahleithner relayed the victim’s condition to the sheriff, and asked for an immediate escort to the dock where emergency medical technicians were waiting. When they got to shore, Dempsey helped move the man to the ambulance where he was further stabilized before being taken to a hospital.
“It all went so fast,” Dempsey recalled. It was maybe five or six minutes from the time we saw the plane crash, to getting them to shore. I credit the pilot for getting his passenger out of the plane. I don’t know how he did it.”
The Air Force reservists also credit years of persistent training that helped them move through life-saving steps intuitively.
“It’s all stuff that we and every Air Force aircrew member have been trained to do in case of an emergency,” said Wahleithner. “We go through survival training, water specific survival training, egress training, and we emphasize that every day in the Air Force Reserve.”
Dempsey and Wahleithner have been flying for many years, but seeing this accident made them realize how important it to continuously fly and train to keep their aircrews and people around their airplane safe.
“We are experts in our airplane for a reason,” said Wahleithner. “We train intensely and extensively. The civilian flying industry loves military pilots because we hold ourselves to the highest standard when we fly.”
Dempsey added that that same level of confidence is also shared between Air Force aircrews.
“The next day, I had to fly my private plane out of there with Jared’s wife and my girlfriend on board. He trusted me and didn’t question my abilities because I’m a known quantity to him, and he’s a known quantity to me, because we’ve flown and trained together, which builds that essential level of trust.”