Mayday! One Man’s Story of Surviving a Plane Crash

Could you survive a plane crash for 18 hours treading water without a life vest? Michael Trapp did. Here's how.

By Derek Burnett from Reader's Digest | February 2012

Well, you’re alive, he thought. And the water’s not too cold, though it was in the mid-60s to low-70s. Without the plane to hold on to, and with no flotation device, he would have to tread water. The problem was the waves — over six feet high — which kept plunging him underwater. He’d come up sputtering, flailing, and kicking and would just get his breath when the next one would pummel him. You’ve got to come up with a plan, he said to himself.

In the Navy, he was trained to turn a pair of pants into a life jacket. He kicked off his sneakers, peeled off his jeans, tied the pant legs, filled them with air, and wrapped the rig around his neck. When the next big wave came, the pants twisted around his throat, nearly strangling him. Well, that was stupid, he thought. Furious, he threw the pants away and went back to treading water.

He rolled over onto his back to catch his breath, but the waves were relentless. Water rushed down his throat, into his lungs. He threw up into the lake. You just survived a plane crash, he said to himself. And now you’re going to drown.

His jeans were still floating a few feet away, so he paddled over to them, pulled out his wallet, and tucked it into his underwear. So that they could identify the body.

Julie got the call a little after 6 p.m. The details were slim: Michael had made a Mayday call. He was missing. The Coast Guard would be searching. They would be in touch. She hung up, dazed and even angry. “Told you so,” she whispered. There was nothing to do but wait.

The Coast Guard dispatched three aircraft and three boats, but the authorities hadn’t gotten a good fix on Trapp’s position before the crash, so the search area was spread over 1,840 square miles — roughly the size of Grand Canyon National Park. And in six-foot waves, a human head sticking out of the water is a tiny thing indeed.

Well, I’m not ready to die just yet, Trapp was thinking. The waves were rough, yes, but he remembered seeing something on TV about a 12-year-old girl who had swum the English Channel. If a 12-year-old girl can do that, I can hang out here and float for a while, he thought. It was hard, though, not to fixate on all the things he’d left in the plane — his waterproof cell phone, for one, and two packs of Little Debbie’s Swiss Rolls, but also a cooler and a water jug, either of which would have helped him stay afloat. He rolled over into a dog paddle and something caught his eye. A channel marker buoy? He began swimming toward it, elated. Well, hell, he thought, I’ll just swim to that and hang on to it until they come get me, and I’ll be good. He swam hard for two hours, occasionally rolling onto his back to rest. Once while he was resting, with his ears underwater, he heard a motor coming. He popped his head out of the water and scanned the horizon. There, not 50 yards away, floated a huge freighter. He waved and screamed, but the ship slogged past, nearly drowning him in its massive wake.

The sun was setting in front of him when he realized that the channel marker he’d been swimming toward was not a channel marker at all: It was the top of a factory smokestack on shore. All right, he thought. Even better. I’ll swim to shore.

He was within two miles of the twinkling lights of the shoreline when he encountered a stiff current that utterly stymied him. He would swim for all he was worth, until he could barely breathe and his muscles were burned-out and useless, then roll over onto his back to rest. By the time he’d recover, he’d have actually lost ground. The first star came out. He made a wish.

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