DETROIT (WWJ/AP) – A pilot whose plane crashed into Lake Huron spent nearly a full day in the water because an air-traffic controller and Coast Guard rescuers were confused about where he had ditched his single-engine aircraft, according to a sheriff’s report.
Michael Trapp crashed within sight of the Michigan shoreline but had to swim and tread water for 18 hours before being rescued by a passing yacht.
The report, released this week by Huron County Sheriff Kelly Hanson, said the controller was not sure if the plane had gone down into Lake Huron near Bad Axe or 145 miles away in Lake Michigan near Traverse City.
Trapp was flying from his home in Gouverneur, N.Y., to visit relatives in Eau Claire, Wis., when he developed engine trouble. He warned the controller that he was “going in the drink” and crashed about 105 miles northeast of Detroit.
Speaking to reporters from his hospital room in July, Trapp talked about the moments before the plane hit the water.
“I was going down. My last call was to Lansing, and I’m like, listen, I said I’m going down right now. I gave them my bearing. I told them I’m 29.2 miles from shore. I said get out here, I don’t want to die, I said.”
Trapp believed he was speaking with a controller in Lansing, Mich. But a private company hired by the Federal Aviation Administration had consolidated the service, meaning that Trapp’s radio transmission was received in Virginia.
“Clearly the errors the controller made delayed a full-blown search,” according to the report. Trapp had been in the water for nearly two hours before anyone was in position to begin a search.
If the flight service had remained in Lansing, the sheriff said, “the controller would have been more familiar with the area and certainly wouldn’t have questioned what body of water this was occurring over.”
Hanson, a commercial pilot, said he has 28 years of flying experience.
A spokeswoman for the FAA referred questions to the National Transportation Safety Board, which is leading the federal investigation into the crash. The Associated Press left a message with the NTSB seeking comment.
The sheriff also suggested reviewing the coordination of future searches by the Coast Guard.
At one point, the report said, rescuers “were ready to launch a search boat, but had not been told to. That order eventually came well over four hours after the ditching.”
Trapp was rescued by Dean and Diane Petitpren of Grosse Pointe Farms, who were traveling to the Upper Peninsula when they spotted him a mile and half from shore. The couple pulled Trapp, conscious, from the water before the Coast Guard arrived to take him to the hospital.
Trapp, a 42-year-old auto mechanic, left his plane without a life jacket. Doctors said he suffered some muscle damage from his long struggle to stay afloat.
The NTSB last month blamed Trapp’s engine trouble on a frozen carburetor. Trapp told investigators he should have applied carburetor heat sooner.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.