By Noelle Wiehe

SAVANNAH, Ga. — When US Coast Guard rescuers on Saturday arrived at the site of a plane crash in the Savannah River here, they found the student pilot standing on the wing.

Officials suspect the sole engine of the Piper PA-28 plane began to fail around 10:45 a.m. on Feb. 26, triggering the unnamed pilot to radio, “Mayday, mayday.” An air traffic controller at Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport can be heard asking the man if he had the city in view, and he responded, “Yeah. I’m not gonna make it.”

“And he put it in the water,” said US Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Cameron Welicka, the Air Station Savannah pilot of the MH-65D Dolphin rescue helicopter that rushed to the river wreck.

Speaking to reporters at Hunter Army Airfield, Welicka added that the student pilot managed somehow to save his backpack, cell phone, and car keys before the river submerged the aircraft.

“I don’t know how his brain was able to put all that together so fast. But he did,” Welicka said. 

Welicka said he and his crew were on a training flight over a marsh when their emergency detection system received a distress call.

“Most of the time they have turned out to be false alarms, but it’s a good training opportunity to take those signals and try to find them, which we have the capability of doing,” said Welicka, adding that pilots often test their distress signals at the top of the hour.

Welicka said he, co-pilot Lt. David Sullivan, and Aviation Maintenance Technician 2nd Class Jordan Spurlock “spooled up the whole system” and veered toward Savannah International Airport.

Within a minute, chatter flowed over the radio, asking if they had a rescue swimmer on board. 

“That kind of clued us in that something was going on, maybe a little more than a standard distress beacon,” Welicka said. 

Then they heard the downed plane was in the Savannah River, near the Back River Bridge that connects Georgia to South Carolina. Following guidance from a controller inside Savannah Tower, the Dolphin’s crew spotted it north of the city.

The student pilot was standing on the wing. He’d just called his instructor to report he’d crashed in the river. 

From 10 stories up, the Dolphin crew watched as the downed pilot swam roughly 60 meters to shore. They were also squinting to see if any other survivors needed to be saved.

Then the crew lowered a rescue basket to the student pilot on the shore and they winched him up to the helicopter. 

“He seemed to be in good spirits,” said Welicka, who estimated that the entire operation from “mayday” to rescue took no more than 10 minutes.

“It was the happiest outcome it could have been,” co-pilot Sullivan told Coffee or Die Magazine.

Returned to Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport, the student met up with his Sheltair Aviation Services instructor, who was very happy the pilot made it back safely.

The National Transportation Safety Board has launched a probe into what caused the crash, and crews are working to remove the plane from the Savannah River.

“I don’t think any pilot is really envious of the choice that he had right — water or marsh — because you don’t really know what’s hidden in the tall grass,” Welicka told Coffee or Die. “And when you see water, you think, ‘All right, well, it’s clear and smooth and flat.’ But it brings its own hazards, because if you touch down in just the wrong way, that airplane is gonna flip over.”