AT 1,200 FEET, Deniece De Priester glanced once more at the Manhattan skyline, then angled her airplane toward home. Deniece’s friend, a corrections officer named Chris Smidt, sat beside her in the cockpit, admiring the view.
Then, as Deniece traced the course of the Hudson River north along the New Jersey coast, the engine of the 45-year-old Piper PA-32-260 she’d just bought shook violently and died. The plane plummeted 400 feet. “Don’t panic,” she told Chris. After 17 years as a pilot of both commercial jets and tiny planes like the Piper, Deniece had learned how to remain calm. She quickly checked the engine flow, propeller settings, fuel-air mixture, and fuel tanks, but she couldn’t identify the problem.
Suddenly the engine roared to life, and the plane slowly climbed back to 1,200 feet. Deniece, 41, and Chris, 43, were relieved. But 30 seconds later, the engine conked out again, and the plane dived about 600 feet. “You’ve gotta be kidding me,” Deniece muttered as she ran through her safety checks again.
It was around 5:15 p.m. on a January evening in 2013, and the sun had set. Deniece sent out a Mayday call and searched the suburban sprawl below for a spot to land. Only one area seemed possible—a strip of the Hudson River. Deniece had closely studied the famous video of Captain Chesley Sullenberger landing a commercial plane on this same river in 2009 with no casualties. If Sully can do it, Deniece thought, so can I.
But she faced a crosswind, which would make landing difficult. If a wing or the wheels hit the water first, the plane could crash and break apart.
Using her training and instincts, Deniece angled the plane into a tail-down glide as it hurtled toward the river. At the last second, she lifted the Piper’s nose slightly so its tail would hit the river first. The plane sliced the water at 70 miles per hour, the impact hitting Deniece and Chris like a body blow.
After a few seconds of stunned silence, they realized they were all right. As the plane began filling with water, they each made a brief phone call home. Then Chris quickly called 911. Deniece grabbed inflatable life vests, which she and her passenger put on.
Within minutes, the plane began sinking nose first. They climbed out the rear door and found themselves floating in frigid water, three quarters of a mile off the New Jersey coast. They watched the plane sink.
“We are going to survive this,” Deniece told Chris, although she knew that they ran the risk of freezing to death. She began to swim toward shore, but Chris lagged behind. He hadn’t tied his life vest, and now his fingers were too numb to manage it.
Deniece was making good progress toward shore when she realized Chris wasn’t beside her. “What are you doing?” she called back to him. “Get your life vest fastened. Think of your children!”
Chris snapped to and secured the vest around his chest and began kicking. For 30 minutes, the two struggled to swim in the icy water.
When at last a rescue boat appeared, Deniece and Chris were hypothermic and could barely move. But in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, Deniece said quietly, “I told you we were going to survive.”
Months later, investigators determined that a faulty valve had caused the plane’s engine failure.
Since the accident, Deniece has opened a flight school in Trenton, New Jersey, to prepare other pilots for emergency situations. Chris knows that she is uniquely qualified for this instruction. “Had Deniece landed any other way, it would have been over,” he says. “Not many people could do what she did.”