In episode 117 of Take to the Sky: the Air Disaster Podcast, we explored the unbelievable tale of survival at sea of Jens Lundy and his best friend and pilot, Jim Hawley, along with their two fathers, Bill Lundy and John Hawley. On September 5, 1997, the four men took off from Phoenix in a rented, four-seat, single-engine Mooney M20, headed for a fly-fishing trip off the coast of Baja, Mexico, in the Sea of Cortez. Into their flight, the plane encounters sudden bad weather and the plane’s single engine begins to fail, requiring Jim to prepare the plane and his passengers for an unfortunate yet unavoidable ocean ditching. A helicopter flies overhead soon after but is unable to locate the men and does not return that first day. As the four men float in the ocean, with Jim’s dad John getting sicker and sicker from swallowing ocean water, Jens and Jim begin to hatch a plan. Jens would swim ten miles for the nearest shore and get help. After a harrowing time swimming at sea for hours straight, Jens reaches shore where several local fishermen help get access to rescue resources. Nineteen hours after ditching in the ocean, the other three men are finally rescued and join Jens back on land.
The Hawleys and Lundys Prepare to Fly for a Father-Son Fishing Trip to Baja Mexico
It was September of 1997, and twenty-six-year-old Jens Lundy got the idea from a magazine. He and his father, Bill, loved to fly fish. And, according to this magazine article, great fly fishing existed in the town of Loreto, which is off the coast in Baja, Mexico, in the Sea of Cortez. Jens immediately thought of the ideal trip and with whom he would most like to go. Talking to his good friend and 27-year-old licensed pilot, Jim Hawley, Jens suggested they fly themselves and their fathers down to Loreto and make it an amazing father/son trip. Jim loved the idea and quickly agreed to pilot a rented Mooney M-20E.
This is the first time we have talked about this type of aircraft before. The Mooney M20 is a family of piston-powered, four-seat, propeller-driven, general aviation aircraft, all featuring low wings and tricycle gear, manufactured by the Mooney International Corporation. And it has one engine.
On their way to the airport in their hometown of Phoenix, AZ, the four men stop at a convenience store where Jens spots some life jackets in a box in the corner and decides to buy them. Once they reach the airport and board the rented plane, they stow their gear, with Jim telling Jens to make sure the life vests were stowed on top for an easy reach. And so, Jens put them on the "hat shelf" at the back of the luggage area.
The father-son group took-off at 5:30AM from Phoenix, for what Jim expected to be about a three-plus-hour flight to Loreto on the east coast of Baja. Jim had filed his visual flight rules (or VFR) flight plan earlier, and once in the air, he attempted to open the flight plan with the onboard system known as Flight Service. But, immediately, they encounter a major issue. Jim can’t get the system to pull up his flight plan, and his radio did not seem to be working. So, he set his transponder to 7600 (indicating a radio failure) and decided to stop off at nearby Ryan Field, a small airport west of Tucson, AZ, to see what was wrong with the flight plan system and radio and to see if either problem could be fixed. It was not a great way to start the day.
The avionics shop at Ryan Field didn't open until 8:00, so they had to wait. Over four hours later, the technician sorted out the problem, and thankfully, all the issues were fixed. But by now, it was 12:30 PM, which meant they were behind schedule as they once again took to the sky. Now back in the air for the second time, Jim opens his flight plan and advises Mexican Customs at Loreto of their expected arrival time.
The Four Men Encounter Unexpected Bad Weather and Strong Turbulence on the Way to Loreto
Climbing to 9,500 feet (or 2900 m), the four headed south, direct for Loreto, crossing over the coast. Along the way Jim checks the local weather service for updates since thunderstorms were very common in this area during summer afternoons. But the weather service reported no problems along their route or at their destination. The weather continued to hold with just "scattered puffy clouds" at this altitude. Taking no chances, however, Jim descended to 7,500 feet (or 2300 m) to stay clear of any clouds.
The crossing over the Sea of Cortez (also called the Gulf of California on the US-side) was proceeding smoothly, and Jim contacted Loreto tower 50 miles (or 80 km) out and received a report of light winds and 20 miles (or 32 km) visibility. But he still couldn't see the coast because of a bank of clouds up ahead. But Jim wasn’t concerned considering the clouds didn't show any signs of convective activity, no lighting or thunder heads.
Jim starts descending to prepare for landing, and he switches the fuel boost pump on as he began his descent. At about 30 miles (or 48 km) out from their destination and 3,000 feet (or 900 m) altitude, the cloud bank still obscured the shore.
And this is when signs arose that the weather was going to give them some trouble. Suddenly, the plane started bouncing around "violently" in "extreme turbulence," shaking everyone up inside the plane, and the sky ahead seemed to be getting darker by the second. Turbulence begins to make the plane shudder and quake, everything and everyone inside the plane is bouncing around. It was so hard, Jens could feel his seatbelt tensing against him as his body is lifted slightly up and down in his seat.
Suddenly there were flashes of lightning ahead and rain began to hit the windscreen, and Jim could see now that the sky was obscured all the way down to the water's surface. Jim had no problem deciding it was time to execute an immediate 180 degree turn to get back to clear skies. Jim advised Loreto tower that he'd made this turn and "would either proceed to an alternate up the coast, Santa Rosalia or circumnavigate around the storm cell." Loreto confirmed that conditions at the field were still fine. But Jim is now battling headwinds in his path, which causes the GPS readout to show their actual speed to be 115 mph ground speed (or 185 kph), which was a far cry from what the plane’s airspeed indicator showed, which was 160 mph (or 257 kph).
The Mooney’s Single Engine Fails and Pilot Jim Hawley Must Ditch in the Sea of Cortez
Jim descended further in the turn to maintain visual conditions. Exiting the rain at just around 1,000 ft. (or 300 m) above the water's surface, there was blue sky above and ahead. Jim next applied full power and began to slightly ascend, but approximately thirty seconds later, at about 1,500 ft. (or 460 m), more trouble comes. This time with the plane’s only engine. Jim levels the plane off and reduces engine power. But when he does, the engine begins to cough and sputter until, eventually, the power sags off, which is a very sharp and abrupt reduction in engine power. The engine is now completely quiet. The plane begins shaking and vibrating even more violently. Jim shouts to his passengers, “I can’t get it restarted!” Jens doesn’t understand, so he questions Jim, “What do you mean, you can’t get it restarted?” Jim responds, “It’s not going to restart.”
Jim’s dad John has an extreme look of concern on his face. He asks Jim what is going on with the plane's engine, but all Jim can say is, “I don’t know.” Then Jim says the unimaginable: “I’m sorry, guys, but we’re going in.”
The Four Men Work Together to Prepare for Ditching as the Plane Falls Toward the Sea Surface
Jim turns the plane back around in the opposite direction and in the direction of the storm so that the plane gets a headwind to slow them down as they make their way closer and closer to what is now becoming an ocean ditching. The goal going through Jim’s mind right now is don't hit the water with a forty mile an hour tailwind. In preparation for their impending emergency evacuation, Jim tells his father John to unlatch and open the aircraft door. Then Jim concentrates his full attention on flying.
Meanwhile Jens, seated behind Jim, unbuckles his seat belt and reaches back for the life vests they had stowed on top of the luggage behind him. He passes one to his father Bill, who is sitting next to Jens. Bill immediately slips it over his head. Jens gives the next vest to Jim’s father John and then kept the other two himself. There was no room or time to put on the bulky marine vests. They were falling and falling.
It is now when the reality of the moment hits Jens like a proverbial ton of bricks. Jens is frightened. They are going in the ocean. They are going to hit the surface of the ocean. They need to slow down the plane so that – what, he wonders? They don’t explode into pieces? The plane won’t cartwheel and break apart, scattering them with it?
Outside the plane, the storm blends in with the horizon. Everything outside their windows is a slight bluish-gray, inky mess. And as we can imagine, with a strong storm blowing about, the surface of the ocean was anything but calm. Jim scans the waves below and is shocked at how rough the ocean looks and how high the waves are cresting, which he estimates to be around 15 feet (or 4.5 m) high.
Jens, who has gotten up out of his seat to hand out the life jackets, is afraid that when the plane hits the water, they will cartwheel and the plane will break apart, and his body will be tossed around the cockpit, killing his fellow passengers. So, he clings to the back of Jim’s headrest and stares out the front cockpit window. He wants to see exactly when they will hit the ocean. He thinks to himself, if this is the last thing I ever see, this is what I want it to be.
Pilot Jim Hawley Manages to Successfully Ditch the Mooney, Avoiding Disaster
As the plane sinks closer and closer to the churning ocean waves, Jim manages to issue a mayday call. He can only repeat the word “mayday” two or three instances before time runs out. They are about to hit the water.
Jim instinctively starts to lower the gear, then remembered that was not proper ditching procedure and raised it -- and then reversed himself, deciding it might help slow them down when they hit the water, hitting the peaks of the whitecaps before the fuselage struck the surface. Jim feels the gear skip over the top of a wave with a loud "thump" and "bang," then another, then one more and suddenly the plane goes nose down into the dark water. But, luckily, the plane is still right side up even though it is sinking.
As the plane impacts the waves at 40 mph (or 12 kph), there is an enormous crashing sound, and Jens, who is watching this happen through the front window, watches as the waves envelop the plane, turning from light blue and frothy on the surface, to the dark green and then eventual black as waves begin to come up over the top of the plane. They have gone down 10 miles (or 16 km) from the nearest shore.
As the Plane Sinks, Survivors Gather Equipment and Prepare to Enter the Water
Jim’s father John props the plane door open as instructed, and as they hit the water, the salty taste and smell of sea spray fill their nostrils and eyes. The four men, uninjured by the initial impact, climb out of the plane and make their way onto the wings, and as they do, they hope to toss out as much gear as possible before the plane finally sinks. Their equipment is basically a large cooler packed with diving equipment, including two pairs of swim fins and a snorkel and mask. But the nose of the plane begins sinking faster even still, and as the water comes up over the wing, they move further and further closer to the wing’s edge, trying to stay above water for as long as they could. But then it was time: all four men stepped off the wing and into the ocean. Their rented Mooney hung in there with its tail sticking straight up for "about four or five seconds" before it, too, plunged beneath the waves, the strobes still flashing until it disappeared into the water.
Amazingly, the water is really warm (about 90-degree F or 32-degrees C). Initially when they enter the water, the younger men had a different reaction than their fathers did. The fathers clung to the now bobbing cooler, but Jim and Jens begin to dart around like dolphins – they are so elated not to have actually crashed and died upon impact with the sea.
Jim’s Father becomes Ill, Making Rescue all the More Urgent
But immediately the group of men face serious trouble. The waves are unrelenting, and Jim’s father John accidentally has gulped down a large amount of sea water, and as he does, he begins to become ill and violently vomit, losing precious fluids that could keep him hydrated and alert. As he continues to throw up, John becomes less and less responsive.
Jens had gone through survival and battlefield lifesaving courses in the Army and really worried about John. Jens tries desperately to catch rainwater in the floating cooler, but every time he manages to collect about an inch of water, the ocean waves crash down over him and the cooler, filling it back up with sea water.
By now it has been about two hours since the men entered the water. As they gather around the ice chest, the two older men hung on to the handles at the ends while the two younger men slip the fins on that were inside the cooler, making it easier for them to stay in place near the others hanging onto the ice chest.
Suddenly, they can hear a helicopter overhead. They wave around the neon-colored swim fins they grabbed off the plane, hoping the helicopter would see those. But the rain and cloud cover were just too much, and Jim knows as the minutes go by that the helicopter cannot see them. It’s now been about five hours since they have been in the ocean. The sun begins to set, and with it, the horrible realization that no one is coming to get them. And Jim’s dad John is still vomiting.
Without Hope of Imminent Rescue, Jens and Jim Decide Jens Will Swim for Shore
More and more it was looking like they may not be able to depend on a rescue for their survival. So, Jim and Jens begin to quietly discuss their options, out of earshot of their fathers. But Jens had already made up his own mind about what needed to be done: he was going to swim for shore to get help. At first, Jim doesn’t want to let Jens do that, but Jim also doesn’t know if he can handle the ocean or the distance to shore. Eventually, they both agree that Jens will indeed be the one to take a run at it. And they aren’t going to tell their fathers just yet because they know the older men will try and talk Jens out of it.
Secretly, another driver behind Jens’ decision to volunteer to swim was that he doesn’t think he can handle watching John die. He also doesn’t want to let anybody else watch HIM die. If he is going to die, he thinks, he wants to be able to do that by himself. Jens puts on the swim fins.
His task is gargantuan: he has to swim ten miles (or 16 km) before he will make it to any land. At this point, the weather had calmed to a point where they could see the grayish outline of mountains in the distance. And with that, Jens takes off in that direction.
Jim and the Fathers Fight the Cold and Fatigue that First Night in the Water
Jim watches his friend swim off, cresting a wave, then another and another, until finally, he can no longer see Jens. Jens’ father, Bill, looks around and asks, “Where’s Jens?” Jim’s response is matter-of-fact and direct when he says, “He’s going to try and reach shore.” Jim then points to the distant mountains and tell them that’s where Jens is going, and now we all are going to stay focused on that, and we also are going to swim in that direction. And so, this is what they did: the three men slowly swim in the same direction as Jens, pushing the ice chest as they go.
The sun went down, and when it did, the water grew noticeably cooler. John had stopped vomiting once the storm quieted down and was now feeling, and looking, much better, floating on his back, gripping the ice chest with both hands, while Bill held on to the other end.
As it begins to get darker out, lightning from nearby storms light up the sky. Jim was getting colder and shivering as the night wore on. While the water was still warm, the cool air and light breeze were causing him to chill and enter the first stages of hypothermia. To rest, he would loosen the vest and hike it up so his head was supported, but this put his mouth at virtually the level of the water, so it was not the best of arrangements. He desperately needed some rest and stability. Jim begins to wonder, at what point does the body just shut down? He looks at his watch and sees it is 1:30 in the morning. They have been in the water for 12 hours now.
Jens Focuses on Staying Positive While He Swims into a Reef and is Injured
Meanwhile, Jens swims steadily towards shore. Along the way he would get an occasional cramp and he would stop to frequently rest, dozing off a few times, but the motion of the waves quickly awakened him, and he continued on. He uses the stars to maintain his course and would alternate swimming face down and on his back. He discovered it was easier to swim if he took off the vest and moved it around underneath him for better balance. When he stopped, he'd often sit upon it. After four hours of nonstop swimming, Jens needed to take a break. He takes his life jacket off and ties it around his head so he can try and rest. It feels like he will never be able to teach land. He is tired and begins to lose hope.
But he cannot lose hope. It’s not a luxury he has – he knows that three people are depending on him for their lives. Even though he is exhausted and thirsty from the constant swimming, Jens begins to talk to himself, motivating himself to continue, saying things like, "this time I'll just swim 20 strokes, or 25 strokes." To keep his mind away from negative thoughts, he'd play classical music in his head and recall favorite TV shows. He particularly didn't want to think much about Jim’s father John, who he feared might well be dead.
At one point, Jens feels something bump his leg in the middle of the night. But almost as immediately as he felt it, Jens tries to push the experience out of mind. He can’t think about what was swimming around him or near him. He just had to try to swim faster.
Eventually, the storm begins to let up and the clouds begin to part, making the stars once again visible. Two hours later, and when Jens is once again swimming, he hears a sound that is different than the usual cresting of waves. This is the sound of waves breaking against something.
Suddenly something hits his knee – and hard. It’s a rock. As Jens feels more around the rock, and begins to stand up, and as he does, the spines of sea urchins covering the rock break off into his hand and up into his swim fins and into the bottoms of his feet.
The structure he was standing on wasn’t land. It was a reef covered in sharp rocks and sea urchins. He knows he can’t go further without this reef shredding him up. He must go back into the waves. It is the hardest thing he has ever done – to get back into what seems like an endless ocean.
Hours After Beginning His Swim, Jens Reaches Shore
As he begins swimming again, eventually, Jens can see the shore and a light about one mile (or 1.6 km) away. Hopeful and energized by the possibility that someone is on shore, Jens starts swimming directly toward it. As he came up on the shore, he smelled a small fire, which must have been the source of the light he saw. Stopping to take his flippers off, he now had to crawl up the rocky beach because the sea urchin spines made walking too painful.
Finally, Jens sees that not only is there fire, but several fishermen are sitting around it. The time was about 2:30 am, seven hours since he started his swim to shore. In broken Spanish, Jens tries to tell them what had happened and that there were still three other men out there. The fishermen helped Jens to the fire, wrap him in a blanket and gave him some tortillas and a jug of water. The fishermen explained that they could not cross the reef until morning without damaging their ponga, a flat bottomed boat, so Jens settled in. He pulled out the sea urchin spines as best he could and then lay down on the rocks and was soon fast asleep.
As Day Breaks, a Rescue is Planned for the Other Three Men Who Struggle with Severe Dehydration
Back out in the water, Jim, John, and Jens’ dad Bill are still floating ten miles away from shore. Throughout the night, none of the men had been able to sleep. For brief moments at a time, they would go quiet and simply rest. Exhausted, they cling to the cooler, scanning the horizon for boats, being entertained periodically by leaping dorado and soaring terns. And they hoped not to see the dorsal fins of sharks. As the sun began to rise, they realize still how far from shore they actually are.
Back on land, and at first daylight and around 7:30 AM, the fishermen take Jens to a nearby jail, where there is a radio, and one of the police officers there contact the airport in Loreto. Jens helps explain where their plane had gone down, repeating the general distance and course that Jim had originally broadcast. Knowing now that there were survivors out there, the police called out the Army helicopter to go search while Jens was then transported to the hospital. While there he heard the helicopter pass over on its way to conduct the search.
Back out at sea, Jim, John, and Bill were all feeling the effects of dehydration. Their mouths were bone dry, their tongues felt like they were shriveled up and their lips were white. Jim considered diving for the kelp he could see clearly below them, but then told himself that he was dehydrated and probably not thinking clearly and to just concentrate on swimming towards shore.
They decided that they would be able to swim faster without holding onto the ice chest which had surely slowed them down and prevented them from making any real progress overnight, and so they decide to ditch the ice chest and manually swim. John pulled a bit ahead while Bill trailed, still clutching his fishing rod case, which slowed him down some and also because he was getting tired. Every once in a while they'd slow to let Bill catch up, with Jim having to call to him to encourage him to continue and catch up. Still, they were careful to never lose sight of each other and they were making progress.
The Men are Spotted at Sea and Taken Aboard a Mexican Naval Vessel
By about 10:00 am they were close enough to make out the shoreline, about five miles (or 8 km) away. And then they hear what they have been waiting for: the unmistakable sound of a helicopter. They waved wildly, Jim using a shirt which he had taken from Jens' duffel earlier.
The copter made one run along the shore and then shortly after passing abeam 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 and it was soon evident that it was headed in their direction. Before long they could make out the shape of a large Mexican Naval vessel pulled alongside and put a small boat over the side to come pick them up. The three exhausted survivors were pulled into the small boat and given small sips of water before being taken over to the ship and helped up a ladder hanging down the side of the ship. It was 11:00 am, they had been in the water 19 hours and 15 minutes. They were rescued, but it wasn't quite over.
None of the seamen spoke English, but Jim spoke some Spanish. Jim was almost afraid to ask about Jens, worrying that he didn't make it, since they were so late being rescued. But, when he finally asked, once everyone was pulled from the water, they immediately assured him that his friend was fine and had, in fact, sent them. Jim and the others finally relaxed. Everyone was OK.
Once on deck, they were given more water and the captain welcomed them aboard. He told them that they were the first ever survivors of a ditching in the area, that they had never before rescued anyone! That everyone else they retrieve from the sea are usually dead.
Back in town, Jens was no less worried about his companions and had come to accept, in his own mind, that John was probably dead. He just hoped Jim and his dad were OK and found soon. When the Navy ship positively identified the three survivors, they radioed shore and Jens, too, finally relaxed.
Back on Land, the Four Men Reunite and Celebrate Their Survival
Finally, back on land, the men are reunited, all hugging one another. Jim told Jens he didn’t think Jens was going to make. But he had. And for that, Jim said he is proud of Jens. After spending the day at a hospital, and the night resting at a hotel, they caught a morning flight home, vowing to return sometime to do some fishing--and a lot less swimming.
Following the crash, whenever the topic of the crash arises, people tell the group they are so lucky. But for Jens, he doesn’t consider what they went through as luck. He felt that someone – or something – was watching out for him. Jim takes a more pragmatic perspective. Of his survival experience he says, “We survived because we had warm water, we kept our heads together and we had the will to survive. I survived because it wasn’t my time.”
And THAT is the amazing story of how Jim and John Hawley and Bill and Jens Lundy survived an ocean ditching.