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Plane fished out of Penn Cove

A crane on a barge lifts the two-engine Cessna Citation jet from Penn Cove on July 24, two days after apparent mechanical failure forced the pilot to ditch the plane just off Coupeville. It was in 66 feet of water. - Christine Tercero
A crane on a barge lifts the two-engine Cessna Citation jet from Penn Cove on July 24, two days after apparent mechanical failure forced the pilot to ditch the plane just off Coupeville. It was in 66 feet of water.
— image credit: Christine Tercero

It took three days, two nights, and five entities pulling together to recover the jet that fell from the sky Tuesday and into Penn Cove.

With salt-frosted windows and wet navigation charts sticking to the windows, the dripping aircraft looked as tired as the crew that had just successfully retrieved it, but not as successful.

The privately owned $2 million Cessna Citation jet went down in Penn Cove about 10:15 a.m. not far from the Coupeville wharf.

Pilot James Ray, 80, passenger and copilot Helcia Graff, 73, and their dog, Maxine, were uninjured and were quickly rescued by boaters. The Idaho residents were enroute from Victoria, B.C., to Ketchum, Idaho.

Paul Bigler, retired Federal Aviation Adminstration inspector, is a pilot examiner and good friend of the pilot. He tested Ray in the jet when Ray purchased it new in 1997. He said Ray had logged 592 hours in the jet before its final flight Tuesday.

Bigler theorizes the accident may have been the result of a malfunctioning electronic trim system, which helps balance the plane from front to back so it will fly level and be easier to control.

"The trim system appears to have shorted out or malfunctioned to full nose-down position, which would have required a lot of muscular force by the pilot to overcome it," he said.

Bigler marvels that the pair were able to accomplish what they did in a few terrifying minutes at 16,000 feet as the jet headed toward the ground.

Bigler said Ray and Graff both grabbed the wheel, or yoke, and pulled as hard as they could, bracing their feet on the instrument panel in an attempt to force the nose of the jet back up. They were able to slow the rate of descent from a speed of 3,000 feet per minute to 2,000, then 1,500, then almost zero before hitting the water of Penn Cove.

"He did an outstanding job," Bigler said.

Lengthy recovery process

The five groups that located and retrieved the jet Thursday from its watery landing place under the direction of Vessel Assist Northwest were Sea and Shore Construction, FOSS Environmental, Anacortes Diving and Salvage and a crew from Penn Cove shell fish farm.

"We had to find it," John Aydelotte of Vessel Assist Northwest said. "But with our equipment and all, it was elementary."

Though Aydelotte boasts it was easy, the recovery process took time and precision in calculation and technique.

First, the team had to send down divers to relocate the sunken plane, settled in mud up to its engines in 66 feet of water. After locating it, they had to video tape the entire inside and outside of the craft to assess the damage and determine if it could withstand the pressure of having its frame hauled back through the water.

The tail of the jet had sunk 5 feet into the cove's muddy floor, and divers also had to dig it out enough for a large strap to pass under and be secured. They used high pressure air hoses to clear the silty mud from the tail and body.

With each diver only able to take the underwater pressure for about 90 minutes, the process took almost a day, with four divers rotating the work.

When the team determined that the plane had not suffered a great deal of structural damage, they decided to try to haul the jet out of the water using a large barge crane and heavy duty straps wrapped under its body.

The haulout took the team almost six hours. Aydelotte said they had to pull it up slowly so that it did not break in half and so it would not lose its wings, which each held gallons of fuel.

He said at first the team feared that shifting the load would dump more fuel and oil into the cove, but it turned out that they lost very little in the retrieval process.

FOSS, which provided environmental safety and protection against hazardous materials polluting the cove, laid out booms and large cloths on the top of the water to contain any possible pollutants from spreading to the rest of Penn Cove.

Jet won't fly again

Once the aircraft was extracted from the water and allowed to drain, the recovery team laid it on a barge so that the owners and representatives from the National Transportation Safety Board could go through and inspect its mechanics and damage.

"The story is Penn Cove is safe and the plane is salvaged," Aydelotte said.

Salvaged yes, restorable no.

"It will never fly again," Bigler said.

The grounded jet was barged to a storage yard on Lake Union in Seattle, where it will be inspected by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Bigler said the safety board has total control over the jet at this point.

"They own it until the investigation is done," he said.

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