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

Michael TrappPhotograph by Tamara ReynoldsTrapp with a friend's plane, the same type of Cessna he lost when its carburetor iced over.
Michael Trapp was doing just fine, thank you very much, as he guided his 1966 Cessna 150 out over the waters of Lake Huron. It was midafternoon on July 26, 2011. He was cruising along at an easy 3,000 feet, on his way to a family reunion in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, from his home in Gouverneur, New York, in the northern part of the state. His wife, Julie, had voiced her disapproval — even asked him to make out a will if he insisted on going — but he had brushed her off. True, it was his longest trip to date, and yes, the plane was older than he was, and sure, he had never before had to cross “big water,” and OK, he had only 130 hours of flying under his belt — but, really, what could go wrong? He had made hundreds of takeoffs and landings, had mapped out his route carefully, and had even left a day ahead of schedule to avoid bad weather.

He was saving hundreds of dollars by not flying commercial. There was a word for people who shelled out nearly a thousand bucks for the privilege of getting groped by security agents and being packed in like sardines: suckers.

And then the engine noise changed. Distinctly. Was he running out of gas? Shouldn’t be. He flicked the selector switch to change fuel tanks. The engine continued to lose power, and his altitude was slipping. He turned on his carburetor heater. No change. He opened up the throttle. The plane continued to descend. He peered forward through the windshield; he could see land up ahead, the shoreline that, on a map, looks like the thumb of Michigan’s mitten.

He radioed Lansing and gave his position and heading. “I’m over the water, and my engine is having trouble,” he said. “Could you just keep an eye on me, please? Just make sure I get to shore?”

Trapp was told to switch to an emergency radio frequency so rescuers would have his location and identification. The water was coming up fast, 100 feet. He switched back over to Lansing.

“I’m going into the drink,” he shouted.

He had slowed to 49 miles per hour, knowing that at 48, his plane would no longer stay in the air. His stall horn began blaring. He opened his door and tickled the yoke to ease the nose up. Just to taunt him, the engine suddenly roared back to life. Too late. The tail hit first. The plane somersaulted, the windshield blew in, and lake water exploded into the cockpit. Lansing’s reply to Trapp’s Mayday was drowned out in the furious rush of water. It was 4:12 in the afternoon.

At 42, Trapp was not what you’d call physically fit. The auto mechanic and self-described motor-head weighed himself regularly — every time he competed in the local stock-car racing circuit. His five-foot-nine, 204-pound frame reflected his laid-back approach to life. He didn’t worry about much; he liked to laugh and to make others laugh; he surrounded himself with friends and family. On paper, he may have looked like a thrill seeker, but the real attraction of racing was the camaraderie. He enjoyed working on cars with his buddies as much as he liked racing them.

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He hadn’t always dreamed of flying. By chance, just three years earlier, he had ended up aloft in a friend’s plane, and the friend had said, “Take the yoke for a minute, Mike. I want to take some pictures.” Trapp was instantly hooked. Months later, he had his license and had financed most of the $13,900 he paid for the Cessna. His sons and stepson — Jeffrey, 19, Nicholas, 17, and Drake, 11 — were thrilled and fought over who would get to fly with him out over the Adirondacks and the St. Lawrence River, looking down on the lakes and forests and small towns of upstate New York. But Julie was less than enthusiastic. The plane scared her. She flew with him a grand total of two times. If he wanted to risk his life, that was one thing, but he could leave her out of it.

Now Trapp held his breath and unbuckled his safety harness. He swam underwater and out the open door and surfaced clinging to the tail. The plane was still sinking. He let go and watched the Cessna drifting down below his sneakers — 30, 40, 50 feet, until it disappeared. “Bye, girl,” he said. It had taken less than a minute to sink.

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