A local pilot and adventurer survived crashing his plane into the Pacific Ocean. Frank Schlichting was flying with his father Gunter off the north coast Vancouver Island on April 18 when he had to ditch his plane into the ocean.
Schlichting left Grand Forks on the morning of April 18 in his Allegro 2000 ultralight airplane and flew to Qualicum on Vancouver Island to pick up his father with plans to fly from there to Denny Island (160 kilometres north of Vancouver Island on the mid-coast) to see his brother.
“Before taking off (from Qualicum) I contacted flight services for a weather update and called my brother at Denny Island for the weather conditions there,” said Schlichting. “The winds were calm at the time but were still forecast to pick up later that afternoon. Visibility was good at the time. We filled the fuel tank at Qualicum and left there at 9:45 a.m. and headed east to avoid airspace closed by a NOTAM [Notice to Airmen] for a six-kilometre radius around Comox.”
Schlichting said they then plotted a direct course for Denny Island that would have been about 440 kilometres. He said they had plenty of fuel to get there and an extra hour and a half worth of flying time to return to Port Hardy (60 kilometres south) in case the weather changed and he couldn’t land at Denny Island.
“The first half of the trip was uneventful,” he said. “We flew at less than a thousand feet and the winds were calm. As we continued, the terrain got higher and we had to climb. As we climbed higher the winds picked up and we experienced moderate turbulence in the valleys.”
Schlichting brought the plane up to 6,000 metres to avoid clouds. He said at that altitude there was no turbulence and “it was smooth flying.” He said although they had a tailwind, the sky looked clear ahead. He tried to get weather updates but was unable to contact anyone. He eventually talked to a pilot from a Coastal Pacific flight that was landing at Bella Bella near Denny Island and was told they were completely socked in and were landing in Instrument Flight Rules mode.
“I thanked him and told him no problem, we had enough fuel to turn around and get back to Port Hardy,” said Schlitching. “At that point we had just under a half tank—enough fuel to remain flying for an hour and a half.”
Unfortunately, due to heavy headwinds, Schlitching was only able to fly at a ground speed of 80 km/h. “This was the strongest headwind I had ever flown in,” he said. “Since I knew I could not fly for two hours with the fuel on board, I thought it would be better to fly at full throttle to increase my ground speed.”
Flying at full throttle, however, Schlichting ended up burning more fuel. In addition, the headwinds did not ease up.
“I looked at my foreflight for somewhere else to land but there was nothing,” he recalled. “We were 72 kilometres from Port Hardy when my low fuel light started to blink…I determined that we probably did not have enough fuel left to make it to Port Hardy and since the last part of the flight would have been over the open ocean, it would have been too dangerous to continue to Port Hardy. If we ended up going down in the ocean off-shore with no life jackets, we probably would’ve been killed.”
On the foreflight Schlichting found a place called Goose Bay nearby with a fish farm and several old logging roads. Unfortunately, the logging roads were overgrown with trees and unsuitable for a landing. He then aimed for a landing on the beach; however, all along the shoreline was steep and rocky. “As I got closer to the beach I saw that it was covered with boulders and we could not land there,” he said. “Having no other options, I then decided I would have to land in the water. I told my dad, ‘Hang on, we are going into the water.’”
Schlichting slowly let off the throttle and kept pulling back on the stick as the plane approached the water. “I held the nose up as high as I could and kept the plane as close to the water as I could,” he said. “When we hit the water the tail hit first and then the wheels skipped for about nine metres, jumped into the air then the plan hit the water again quite gently and stopped. The plane was still upright and the water was just a little above the doors. I said to my dad, ‘Well, that couldn’t have gone any better.’”
The Schlichtings were able to undo their seatbelts and swim towards shore. They were doing fine until they ran into a thick bed of kelp and the senior Schlichting had to abandon his backpack. “Dad was struggling with swimming with the backpack,” said Frank Schlichting. “I told him nothing in it was worth drowning over. He left the backpack and we swam the rest of the way to shore.”
Schlichting said the water didn’t feel too cold while they swam but when they got out they were cold and shivering. They were able to signal a helicopter and were picked up 90 minutes later.
“The search and rescue helicopter crew asked if we had injuries,” he said. “We said we were fine, just a little cold. They gave us soup and coffee as well as dry socks and coats to wear. We flew to Port Hardy and then were transferred to a Buffalo that was being used in the search for us.”
The Buffalo search and rescue helicopter gave the pair a ride to Comox and then they were given a ride to Courtenay where they checked in at a hotel. The next day they both took the Greyhound bus to their respective homes. Schlichting was back in Grand Forks by evening.
Schlitching told the Gazette he has no qualms about flying again. He plans to get another similar type plane, which will be covered by insurance, to replace his Allegro 2000, which was damaged beyond repair.