Brace for Impact – Times Publications, May 2010
The sky grew dark as pilot Jim Hawley navigated the small propeller plane through the murky clouds about fifty miles off the coast of Baja, Mexico. As the plane flew deeper into the graying sky, it began to shudder violently. Extreme turbulence jolted the aircraft, tossing the passengers around inside the cramped cabin. It was about 1:30 p.m. on a stormy September afternoon. Jim, his friend Jens Lundy, and their fathers, John and Bill, were en route to the Mexican tourist town of Loreto for a planned fishing trip. It was a destination they would never reach.
Suddenly, flashes of lightning illuminated the cockpit as thunder roared furiously and heavy raindrops began to pelt the plane. Out the front windshield, Jim could no longer see the shore ahead or the sea waters below. The thick clouds had completely enveloped the plane, obscuring the view.
“I can’t continue through this,” Jim shouted over the clamor of the storm. “I need to turn around.”
Quickly, he executed a 180-degree turn, pushing the plane’s power to full-throttle. As the plane climbed, the skies looked clear. He made a call to the radio tower to report a change in the flight plan and began to consider his options—either to proceed to an alternate destination up the coast or attempt to circumnavigate the storm.
But just as they rose above the clouds, the plane’s engine abruptly sputtered and seized. Jim lowered the nose of the plane and tried to restart the engine to no avail. His heart sank in his chest as he realized the grim outlook of their situation—the plane was going to crash.
“There was a panic that I felt,” Jim recalls. “Once I knew there was no chance of restarting the engine, I knew we were going to glide until we hit something. I knew we were going to get wet.”
“Sorry,” Jim hollered over his shoulder to the others, “but we’re going down.”
Jim had no choice but to ditch the plane in the shark-infested waters of the Sea of Cortez. But surviving the plane crash would be only the beginning of their struggle to stay alive.
The Day Begins
Dawn hadn’t yet broke in the early morning hours of September 5, when John Hawley arrived at his son’s Phoenix home to pick up Jim for their awaited trip. It had been more than four years since Jim had last seen his father. After his parents’ divorce, Jim had become estranged from his dad. Now at 27, and the owner of an automotive paint and repair shop, he was ready to put the past behind him and reconnect with his father.
“I wanted my dad back,” Jim recalls. “I missed my dad, and I wanted my dad back in my life.”
His best friend and co-worker, Jens Lundy, 26, had also struggled with issues he had with his own father. So the pair decided to organize a father-son fishing trip as a way of rebuilding the relationships. They chose Loreto, a Mexican tourist destination known for its clear waters and world-class sport fishing.
As John and Jim drove to the airport, they discussed where life had taken them over the past few years. During that time, Jim had gotten married and become a father himself. John hadn’t yet met his 18-month-old grandson.
At about 5 a.m., they arrived at the Mesa airport and met up with Jens and Bill Lundy. The group stowed their gear in the rented Mooney M-20E that Jim, a trained pilot, would fly. Life vests were stashed toward the back of the luggage area.
The four departed that morning for what Jim expected to be about a three-hour flight, but Mother Nature had other plans. Just off the Baja peninsula, the storm hit suddenly and without warning.
“Once we were in the clouds, that’s when I realized we were in a storm. It was pretty bad,” Jim recalls. “It’s alarming—a lot of turbulence, a lot of rain, lightning. It was a clear blue day, and suddenly the sky was dark gray.”
Rising above the clouds, Jim felt he had passed the worst of it when suddenly the engine stopped. With little time to consider his next move, Jim commenced a shallow turn back toward the storm.
“The only thing I was thinking about was getting us as close to land as possible,” Jim recalls. “I knew about where we were. I just didn’t know how far offshore we were going to be when we hit.”
Jim turned to his father: “Unlatch the door.”
The hatch door was the only way in and out of the small plane. John braced his leg against the opening to kick it out as soon as they landed. Meanwhile, Jens, seated behind Jim, unbuckled his seatbelt and reached back for the life vests. He passed one to his father, who was sitting next to him, and one to John and kept the other two for he and Jim.
“Make sure your seatbelt is tight!” Jim hollered to the others. “It’s going to be a rough landing.”
With no visibility, Jim continued in the direction he believed the shore to be. The strong winds carried the plane as it glided through the clouds toward the dark waters ahead. Jim made an emergency mayday call, giving his estimated position, and then leveled off the wings as they approached the water.
“The wind was blowing so hard that we were actually moving sideways,” Jim recalls. “As we got lower and lower, I could see the surface of the ocean more clearly, and I could see these huge whitecaps. It was blowing fierce.”
Just a few hundred feet from the water’s surface, Jim recalls that a sense of relief washed over him. The strong headwinds had slowed the plane’s speed, making Jim feel confident that he could land without tearing the plane apart. He let go of the gear and braced his hands against the windshield, while Jens, realizing there was no time to get his seatbelt back on, crouched down behind the pilot’s seat.
The plane jolted and thumped as it skipped across the water. After an abrupt bounce, the plane nosed back down into the dark water and bobbed back up to the surface.
In an instant, the plane was rocking in the waves. For a moment, Jim sat in shock. Then he realized his father was already standing on the wing of the plane, pulling Jens and Bill out the hatch.
“Jim! Jim!” John hollered. “Get out! Get out!”
Jim threw off his headphones and unbuckled his seatbelt. As he climbed out the hatch, Jens handed him a lifejacket. Standing on the wing, Jens opened the rear trunk of the plane and pulled out three bags. An empty ice chest was stuck inside. Bill helped to heave it out, shearing off the top lid. With the gear floating in the water, Jens grabbed what he could and stepped off the wing to get out of the way when the plane sank.
The surface dropped out from under the rest of the survivors as the plane nosed over, throwing them into the warm waters. For a few seconds, the plane hung in place, its tail sticking straight up for a few seconds before plunging beneath the waves and disappearing into the deep.
“We watched the airplane as it sank, disappearing into the water,” Jim recalls. “And there we were—out there in the middle of the ocean.”
Lost At Sea
The twenty-foot waves broke over the four survivors as they battled to stay afloat. The four grabbed hold of the ice chest. Inside were two pairs of swim fins and a snorkel and mask. The two younger men slipped the fins on, making it easier for them to stay in place near the others hanging onto the ice chest.
With the wind and rain beating down on them, John, heavy and in his late 50s, struggled to secure the small lifejacket around his large frame. Although it was about 3:30 in the afternoon, the sky was as black as night. Occasional bursts of lightning provided the only illumination in an otherwise dark seascape.
As they swam in the breaking waves, John accidentally swallowed several mouthfuls of sea water. Hanging on to one end of the ice chest, he began to vomit. Quickly, John’s condition began to deteriorate.
“He had turned purple and was gasping for air,” Jim recalled. “I thought, ‘This is not good. I’m probably going to watch my dad die.’”
After nearly two hours in the water, the storm began to let up. Although they could not see the shore, they could make out land in the distance.
Suddenly, they heard a puttering noise overhead, which seemed to be getting louder. The survivors looked toward the horizon and spotted a helicopter flying low over the water. It flew back and forth, a few miles away from their position. Jim felt a sense of hope as he reasoned his emergency call to the tower must have gone through and that they were about to be rescued.
The four signaled wildly with their arms, using a pair of neon green swim fins like flags, but they could not get the pilot’s attention. About 15 minutes after it arrived, the helicopter disappeared. Looks of concern were on their faces as they came to terms with the possibility of spending the night floating in the sea.
At about 7:30 p.m., as John and Bill continued to cling to the ice chest, Jens pulled Jim aside. “I’m going to try and swim to shore and get help.”
Jens, a former army diver, was the strongest swimmer in the group. In John’s condition, Jens knew he could not survive long and that he was their best chance for help.
“This was my turn to do something for everyone else,” Jens said after the crash. “They had always been there for me in the past.”
They decided Jim would stay behind with the men’s fathers. Jim and Jens swapped fins, giving Jens the better ones. Jens took off swimming quickly to put distance between him and the group before his father figured out what happened.
As Jim paddled back toward the others, Bill asked, “Where’s Jens?”
“He’s gone for help,” Jim said.
“No. He’s crazy,” Bill said. “We have to get him.”
It was too late. Jens had already disappeared from view.
Father and Son
As the sun set and the water grew cold, Jim and his father talked quietly. Now drifting in the middle of the sea, their differences seemed to melt away. The problems of the past that had kept them distant from each other now seemed so trivial.
“There was only one person I had any unfinished business with, and that was my dad, and there we were out there together, not knowing if we were going to live or die,” Jim recalls. “But at least we had that one last night together.”
As the waters calmed, John had stopped vomiting and appeared to be getting better. He floated on his back, gripping the ice chest with both hands, while Bill held on to the other end.
Through the night the two spoke on and off, with long periods of silence in between. Exhaustion and thirst began to consume them, and they were becoming weaker by the hour. Jim held on to the hope that they would be rescued soon.
Meanwhile, Jens was swimming steadily toward shore. The night sky was lighted by a million twinkling stars that reflected off the dark waters. He used the stars to maintain his course. For hours Jens swam but seemed no closer to shore.
Then at about 1:45 a.m., Jens felt what he thought was ground. He tried to stand but felt painful pricks cut open his hands and shins. He had run into a reef. Sea urchin spines stuck into his hands, slicing them open. Turning on his side, he waded painfully around the reef.
As he crossed over the reef, Jens began to hear the sounds of the surf as the waves hit the shore. In the distance, he thought he could see a light.
“Help! Help!” Jens yelled. “Help me!”
There was no response.
Seven hours after he left the group, Jens had reached land. He waded ashore over the slippery rocks and broken sea shells. Stopping to take his flippers off, he now had to crawl up the rocky beach because the sea urchin spines made walking too painful.
Two fishermen approached him and, realizing his condition, wrapped him in a blanket and gave him food and water.
“I need to get help,” Jens explained. “There are others in the water.”
Although they didn’t speak English, the fishermen explained that they could not cross the reef at night without damaging their ponga, a flat-bottomed boat. Jens would not be able to get help until morning. He worried that by the time he got help it would be too late.
As the sun rose the following morning, Jim, John and Bill focused on the horizon for signs of a rescue, but by 8 a.m. they began to lose faith that Jens had made it to shore. They had been treading water for more than eighteen hours. By now they were all feeling the effects of dehydration, their mouths bone dry, their lips white and blistered.
“We need to get to shore now,” Jim said. “We need to swim.”
Throughout the night they had been paddling slowly in the direction of land, but Jim knew that holding onto the ice chest was slowing them down. If they were going to make it, they needed to abandon the ice chest.
Reluctantly, Bill and John let go of the ice chest. John pulled a bit ahead while Bill trailed behind. They were careful to never lose sight of one another.
By 10 a.m., as they began to make out the shoreline on the horizon, they suddenly heard a noise in the distance. A helicopter was flying nearby. They waved wildly. The helicopter made one run along the shore and then shortly after passing them, banked away in the direction of the airport, disappearing over the horizon. About 15 minutes later, Jim noticed a big black plume of smoke on the horizon that was heading in their direction. Before long they could make out the shape of a large boat. It was headed straight toward them. It was almost another half hour before the Mexican naval vessel pulled alongside and a smaller boat was sent out to pick them up.
The three exhausted survivors were pulled into a small boat and given small sips of water before being taken to the ship. It was 11:00 a.m. They had been in the water for more than 20 hours.
After being helped up the ladder and onto the naval vessel, Jim looked around for Jens. When he didn’t see him, he began to panic.
“There’s one more,” Jim told the crew. “There’s another survivor.”
“We know,” the crew member said in Spanish. “He told us where to find you.”
At dawn, the fishermen had taken Jens to the dock where he found a police officer, who called a Mexican army helicopter to resume the search. Jens, who was badly injured from the reef, was transported to a hospital.
Once on deck, the three were given more water and the captain welcomed them aboard. They were the first ever survivors of a plane crash in that area. The crew had never before rescued anyone.
Against all odds, all four had survived.
It has been 13 years since their incredible rescue. For Jim Hawley, the experience still seems surreal. Since that September 1997 crash, Jim has had four more children with his wife, Cheryl. Jens has since moved to Connecticut, and the two remain close friends.
For Jim and his father, their relationship remains strong. They all consider it a miracle that they all survived, and their bond has been strengthened by the experience.