Huron Co Sheriff: Delayed rescue of pilot could've been avoided

Pilot Michael Trapp talking to reporters at Covenant Healthcare in Sagniaw days after being rescued from Lake Huron.

The Huron County Sheriff's department has released the last messages a pilot made before his plane crashed into Lake Huron in July. The pilot treaded water for nearly 18 hours before he was rescued.

After months of investigating Sheriff Hanson and other law enforcement agencies have concluded the delayed rescue could have been avoided had there been a local flight service station.

On July 27th, Michael Trapp, a pilot from New York, was headed to Wisconsin. While he was flying over Lake Huron he started to have engine trouble. He radioed for help to Lansing Flight services, a facility that provides information to pilots.

This controller is actually based out of Virginia. Several years ago the FAA subcontracted it's flight services.

L ockheed MKartin took over and consolidated at the end of 2009

In the audio you can hear Trapp mispronounce "Bad Axe Airport" as "Big Axe." You can hear the full audio in the video box above.

"I'm 29 miles east of lansing or near the Big Axe airport. I'm over the water can you keep an eye on me and make sure I make it to shore?" said Trapp.

The air traffic controller then tells the U.S. Coast Guard he believes Trapp is in the Flint area.

Sheriff Hanson says had the controller been local he would have know Trapp meant "Bad Axe" and would've had a better idea as to Trapp's location.

Hanson says he and the other investigating agencies are reaching out to lawmakers to bring flight service facilities back to Michigan.

Here's the complete statement released by Sheriff Hanson:

In the days following the recovery of the victim from this incident on 7/27/11, I put a lot of thought on how it was handled. I made several comparisons to myself, as I am a commercial rotorcraft/fixed wing pilot, with over 28 years of experience. During those years, I have spent an awful lot of time over water. In the past few years, I have found myself frequently flying out to a local Island in Saginaw Bay during the fall and winter months. I fly out there by private helicopter and have formulated a personal emergency plan. In this emergency plan, I utilize text messaging with a person familiar with who is on board and the type of equipment that I am flying. Basically when I leave, either the shoreline of our main land or the Island, I send a text message about my departure. That alerts my contact person so if they don TMt hear back from me within 15 minutes; they are to contact USCG Detroit Sector to begin a search. With that being said, I can TMt help but wonder if an emergency occurs in that 6-mile trip, will there be confusion and delays to my rescue, just as occurred in this last incident in July.

On 8/12/11, myself, Sanilac County Sheriff Garry Biniecki, USCG Harbor Beach Station Chief Scott Cichoracki, Harbor Beach Police Department Chief Sid Schock and other members of our respective departments, met at the HBCG Station to look into this incident. We learned through information provided by the Coast Guard that they had received incomplete information, that basically delayed a full-blown search. We also contacted the pilot by telephone in regards to his recounts of that day. It was decided that our office would follow up with USCG Cleveland. Sanilac County Sheriff TMs Office Special Deputy Timothy Juhl, an instructor rated airplane pilot with 36 years of aviation experience, would follow up with Lockheed Martin Flight Service.

On 9/08/11, all agencies met again at the HBCG to review their findings. I was able to speak to USCG Captain Sugimoto from Cleveland, who advised that it was unclear in the beginning whether an airplane had actually ditched. Once it became clear, he said, They threw everything at it. Sanilac County was able to obtain a CD from Lockheed Martin Flight Service. It contained the radio traffic between the pilot and the so-called Lansing Flight Service. On it, it is very clear that the pilot is in trouble and asking for assistance. Although he originally reports 29 miles east of Lansing, he quickly amends to Big Axe. The controller never understands that he meant Bad Axe even though he was talking on Bad Axe TMs RCO 122.65. One other RCO in the state of Michigan with the same frequency is Traverse City. It appears the controller is confused between Bad Axe and Traverse City because he asks what body of water the pilot is actually over. This confusion continued to escalate. It certainly didn TMt help when the controller neglects to stay in contact with the distressed pilot and makes assumptions of altitudes that have never been reported.

Some years ago, the FAA decided to subcontract its flight services. When Lockheed Martin took over, a consolidation began. Apparently, that consolidation put the controller actually in Virginia as opposed to Lansing. If that controller would have been in Lansing, maybe the confusion of where this took place would not have occurred. You will need to review that CD as it speaks for itself. What you are going to find is that a man who told me he did not expect to spend no more than 30 minutes in the water, actually had to spend another 16.5 hours before being rescued.

Our agencies have come to the consensus that Lockheed Martin Flight Service played a major part in the lack of response to this incident. Clearly the errors the controller made delayed a full-blown search. It certainly seems he could have been more aggressive in the way he communicated and gathered information. Our belief is if Lansing Flight Service actually existed in our state, the controller would have been more familiar with the area and certainly wouldn TMt have questioned what body of water this was occurring over. Delay times in communications and especially not staying in constant contact with the pilot, did not help with gathering information. More information was needed about the exact emergency and certainly the exact location where the ditching took place. Keep in mind it was probably close to two hours before the first search asset arrived on scene. The CD of the pilot and controller really speaks for itself. One can only imagine what it would have been like to be approximately 16 miles offshore and preparing to land an airplane into rough waters. And then while doing that, making a radio transmission to someone that doesn TMt answer. This occurred as the victim reported being a 100 TM off of the water and telling the controller he was going in the drink. Our agencies are quite concerned whether Lockheed Martin actually has taken any steps to correct the deficiencies that lead to the confusion that afternoon. We are unaware whether anything has been addressed. We do not have the ability to properly address our concerns in a hands on fashion, as we would like. We are hoping that Lockheed Martin really has accessed and addressed the events of that day. Once again, in our opinion, the consolidation that lead to Lansing Flight Service being actually located in Virginia, was not the wisest decision in this circumstance. Also, questions over the years have always been in my mind on how the Coast Guard coordinates searches in our area from Cleveland Ohio. The night this incident occurred, I was at the Harbor Beach Coast Guard Station trying to get more information. They actually were ready to launch a search boat, but had not been told to. That order eventually came well over 4 hours after the ditching. There has to be a better way of coordinating searches, on a local level, in order to keep those who really need to be involved in the loop. Our goal is to prevent something like this from happening again.

Our agencies have spent a lot of time researching and investigating this incident. We also have to tend to our organization TMs regular day-to-day operations. It was decided to reach out to Congresswoman Candice Miller TMs Office for suggestions and they are providing assistance. A decision has been made to honor the request of media to release our findings in this matter. We are hopeful that a productive solution will occur.

Kelly J. Hanson

Huron County Sheriff