By Will Greenlee – Treasure Coast Newspapers
ST. LUCIE COUNTY — Frank Webster said the Tuesday morning flight out of Treasure Coast International Airport and Business Park in his single-engine plane was supposed to be a leisurely one.
Webster, 77, said he tries to pilot the fixed wing 2007 Jabiru aircraft an hour a week.
“I was out there, just having a good time,” Webster said Thursday. “I wasn’t working on any maneuvers or anything, and all of a sudden the engine started running a little rough.”
It wouldn’t be long before the plane would be in a canal north of Florida’s Turnpike and east of Minute Maid Road, and Webster would be making his way out of chest-deep water.
Water that a man who came to help him said contained “some big gators.”
Looking back on the crash landing, he said, it was scary.
“At the time? Not so much. I was busy,” Webster said. “That’s the nice thing about training. Training takes over. You think about what you’re doing, not anything else.”
Webster, a retired tax accountant living in Jupiter, said it’s his first plane.
He said he worked for Piper Aircraft in the 1970s and flew some of their aircraft at the time. He got his pilot’s license in July 2020.
“I bought the plane as a bucket list thing, and my wife and I would travel all around Florida because there are a lot of nice places to fly in Florida,” Webster said.
He said he took off from the airport about 10:30 a.m., and headed southwest, which he said would have taken him over Lawnwood Regional Medical Center & Heart Institute in Fort Pierce.
Told a medical helicopter was taking off from the hospital, Webster decided to head west.
He was about 20 to 25 miles west of Fort Pierce, and the engine started running a bit rough, Webster said. He made a 180-degree turn to go back to Fort Pierce and was at about 2,500 feet.
“Then it started getting a little bit rougher and rougher,” Webster said. “I called the tower and told them what was happening.”
The engine RPMs dropped more and more. Webster couldn’t maintain airspeed and altitude.
“They told me, you should be able to see the turnpike a mile south of you,” Webster said. “That wasn’t an option for me, I just didn’t think that would be a good idea to use the turnpike … landing in between the cars.”
‘I said I’m going down’
He spotted what he described as a dirt service road on a canal.
“It looked good from the air,” Webster said. “I told him where I was. I said I’m going down.”
The plane shook and jumped around.
He said he went down into the road, but realized vegetation on the side of the road was higher than it looked from the air.
Webster skidded along a bank and into a canal. He grabbed his stuff as water came in the bottom of the plane.
He made his way to the bank in chest-high water and saw a St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office helicopter overhead. The helicopter landed nearby.
“They said they were taking off and they heard my call and they responded to it,” Webster said.
Meanwhile, Webster said a man with cattle in a trailer behind a pickup came by, and helped sheriff’s officials access the road.
That man told him of “big gators” in the canal.
Webster said he was flown out in the same medical helicopter that had taken off from Lawnwood hospital at the beginning of his flight.
“That’s the one I ended up in,” Webster said.
He said he had three cracked ribs, cuts and bruises and a large cut on his head that required staples.
He’s not sure whether he’ll take to the skies again after he heals up.
“Right now my wife doesn’t want to get into a single-engine airplane with me or anyone else,” Webster said.