4 rescued after dramatic airplane ditch in Gulf

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — With his engine failing, the pilot of a single-engine plane managed to maneuver the craft and three passengers to a safe splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico on Saturday.

Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Lynn Lunsford said the pilot of the Piper Malibu reported engine trouble around 2 p.m. Saturday, and the plane began to descend rapidly from about 26,000 feet. The flight had left Cozumel, Mexico, on its way to New Orleans.

The pilot’s ability to make radio contact with air-traffic controllers in Houston became spotty as he descended, and his last report to them came a few minutes before the craft hit the water. Commercial jets in the area helped relay visual information and some radio messages that made it to them but not to Houston. One Delta Air Lines pilot went off course to keep an eye on the small plane, Lunsford said.

After gliding for about 25 minutes, the Piper Malibu splashed down near an oil rig about 175 miles southeast of New Orleans. A boat from the rig picked them up, and they were later taken to shore by a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter. Lunsford said the pilot and three others appeared to be in good condition but were taken for a checkup at a New Orleans hospital as a precaution.

Lunsford said a safe water landing is a difficult maneuver.

“It demands a lot of skill on the part of the pilot to get the aircraft into the water safely,” Lunsford said, adding that emergency landings on water are riskier than those on land.

A Coast Guard news release identified the plane’s occupants as Gary Intravia of Mandeville, La.; Kelly McHugh of Madisonville, La.; Ken Ross and Greg Drude, both of Hammond, La.

Chief Petty Officer John Edwards, a Coast Guard spokesman, said the four were in one of the plane’s inflatable rafts when the boat from the oil rig picked them up.

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