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Skyhawk pilots debrief Hawaii emergency landing

Schoewe’s student on the morning of November 19 was Elliot Pereira, a veteran of nine years of active duty in the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force as a corpsman and medic, respectively, who remains in the reserves and has also had subsequent law enforcement training.

“Elliot’s got a good résumé as far as the reasons he’d be calm under pressure,” Schoewe (pronounced SHAVE-ee) recalled December 3 in a video conversation with Pereira and AOPA. Nonetheless, when the engine began to run rough and the Skyhawk began to vibrate, Schoewe took his cue to take the flight controls and turn away from roughly 20 miles of ocean ahead, and turn back toward their point of departure, Upolu Airport, a nontowered field with a 3,800-foot runway perched on Upolu Point, the northernmost point on the largest island in the chain.

By then the airport was a few miles away, though the Skyhawk, over water with two passengers in the back seat, had not climbed more than 2,000 feet, the pilots recalled.

The Hawaiian Islands are collectively a paradise to visit, or to live in, but from an aviator’s perspective, the rugged volcanic terrain streaked with towering waterfalls and jagged mountain peaks and ridges poses challenges unlike what Schoewe encountered in his pilot training at the University of North Dakota’s campus near Phoenix. (Arizona has plenty of mountains and terrain inconducive to forced landings, but lacks the large swaths of ocean featuring strong currents, large waves, and occasional sharks.) Fortunately for all four aboard, Schoewe and Pereira’s flight planning, combined with a little luck, had set them up to succeed. The passengers were advised to don their life jackets soon after the engine began producing unusual noises and vibration, accompanied by RPM fluctuation and, later, an odor of something burning. Those flotation devices, a must for any Hawaiian aviator, remained dry.

Student pilot Elliot Pereira, left, was preparing to get signed off for a solo cross-country with CFI Preston Schoewe on November 19 when engine trouble changed the plan. The two worked together, remaining calm and dividing tasks while Schoewe took over pilot-in-command duties. Photo courtesy of Preston Schoewe.

Schoewe recalled that he prioritized the “communicate” portion of the in-flight emergency management trinity “aviate, navigate, communicate,” recognizing that at low altitude over water with a very uncertain engine, he “kind of switched up the order” to make contacting air traffic control among his first priorities, “because I didn’t want to be in the channel with no one knowing I was in the channel,” Schoewe explained. He contacted center right after starting a turn, though he did not immediately declare an emergency.

“So, obviously, we turned around. But before I ran any checklist, I just started communicating,” the young CFI continued. “Looking back on it, if I were to do something sooner, I would have declared an emergency. Like if it happened to me tomorrow, I would have declared an emergency” at the first sign of trouble, rather than waiting until it became clear, minutes later, that the engine was fast approaching total failure.

Schoewe had not provided extensive instruction specific to crew resource management ahead of its practical application, though the pair had flown together enough to have developed a good rapport that served them well. The purpose of the November 19 flight was to prepare Pereira for his first solo cross-country. The CFI and student recalled remaining calm, communicating effectively with each other, and running the emergency checklists applicable to engine malfunction with loss of power while scanning for a suitable spot to land. They described dividing tasks efficiently between them, calmly working through the procedures, and splitting their attention between engine gauges and focused aerial inspection of Hawaiian real estate with an eye for flat, clear areas ahead.

“We just followed the checklist,” Pereira said. “Pretty much we knew what to do. We had the passengers behind us, you know, get ready for [an] emergency landing and that’s pretty much it. I kept an eye on the gauges, even took a recording of it, just for documentation purposes.”

While the engine did not quit on them entirely, it was clearly struggling to produce power, and Schoewe soon assessed that they would not have enough of that to make it back to the airport.

“It’s hard to explain, and I’m not going to make engine noises, but you could just tell it was ready to turn off, almost, and then we kept our eye on the gauges,” Schoewe said. The oil temperature indication began to climb as the oil pressure bottomed out.

It was around this time that Schoewe declared an emergency.

“I decided to declare when I realized I wasn’t going to land on the airport, and more when I just realized that we’re landing on this road,” Schoewe said, crediting Pereira with spotting Puakea Bay Road, which runs inland as a continuation of another small, unpainted road that ends in a driveway very near the water’s edge. Pereira corrected that somewhat, recalling that he actually pointed out an open field that was a little closer, before noticing a paved, empty road that turned out to be well suited to their purpose: It is used only by residents and guests visiting the gated community of large homes flanked by sprawling spreads of grass, some sparsely treed, and a gentle inland slope. There was not a car in sight, and not many obstacles to avoid.

It was just what Schoewe had in mind: “From an emergency landing standpoint, that area of the Big Island is … dreamy, I would say.”

Pereira kept his camera mainly on the instrument panel during the landing; its microphone captured the squeak of the Skyhawk’s stall horn followed a fraction of a second later by the squeak of tires meeting asphalt. They rolled to a stop, still without a car in sight, and Schoewe used a handheld radio to advise ATC they were safely on the ground, and ATC advised in turn that emergency services were en route.

“I said, ‘Roger that, emergency services are on the way.’ And I just figured that was protocol,” Schoewe recalled, noting the airplane was undamaged and the passengers and crew, while perhaps a little shaken, were unhurt. Though they were not in need of an ambulance, they did need a ride, and the handheld radio turned out to be handy: “We actually didn’t have cell service where we landed.”

Their arrival did not go otherwise unnoticed.

A Cessna Skyhawk with four people aboard and a malfunctioning engine landed on Puakea Bay Road in Puakea Bay Ranch, a gated community in Hawi, Hawaii, on November 19. The aircraft was not damaged, and neighborhood residents offered refreshments and a phone to the CFI, student pilot, and two passengers aboard the planned cross-country training flight. (The flight crew pushed the aircraft off the road and into the grass after landing to leave room for vehicles to pass.) Photo courtesy of Preston Schoewe.

“The neighborhood kind of discovered us, and those people could not have been nicer,” Schoewe recalled. “They offered us a ride to Kona (about an hour away by car) to get back to Maui … they basically just made us feel like it’s our neighborhood that we landed in.”

The neighborhood guests were given a ride to the gate house, where Schoewe was given a phone to call his employer, Fly Maui, which had just hired Schoewe in March (along with a fellow UND Phoenix graduate) to report he would not be returning on schedule, and why.

“I could kind of feel the shock through the phone,” Schoewe recalled of that conversation. “But she handled the [news] super professionally and made sure we, you know, were taken care of and got a ride back to Maui… I think I got back home to my house (on Maui) at like 2:00 p.m., which is pretty remarkable.”

Both CFI and student agreed that their experience has not diminished their desire to build and advance professional flying careers, nor has it diminished their love of living in Hawaii. Pereira said he is looking to follow Schoewe’s lead and aim for charter or airline work, as long as the job in question is Hawaii-based. Schoewe said he could be pried away from the islands for a time, as long as there was a path to quickly return: “I don’t plan on leaving Hawaii if I don’t have to.”

Getting the Skyhawk back to Maui has been a little more difficult. At last check, the wings were to be removed to facilitate loading the airplane into a shipping container to travel home by ship. The cause of the engine trouble remains to be fully investigated.

Both pilots reported there is very little they would do differently if they ever find themselves in a similar situation. One thing that Schoewe might tweak is the planning of cross-country training routes, perhaps favoring Molokai, an island separated from Maui by a somewhat shorter stretch of water. There is no way to fly 50 or more miles in any straight line between two airports without crossing water in all of Hawaii, but Lahaina Roads is less than 10 miles across.

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