Aug 3, 2022 - News

Air traffic control suggested Austin pilot ditch on interstate

A plane sinking in Lady Bird Lake.

A screenshot of the Cessna shortly after it crashed, via drone footage from Austin-Travis County EMS

With his engine failing and his cockpit smoked out, a state parks pilot worried he might hit a downtown Austin building and dismissed a suggestion from Air Traffic Control to land on I-35, per documents Axios obtained through an open records request.

Why it matters: The harrowing revelations underscore the near misses that could have led to a much deadlier and more calamitous outcome before the pilot β€” Texas Parks and Wildlife Department game warden Dwayne Havis β€” managed to coolly crash the plane into Lady Bird Lake in June.

Details: Shortly after a 1pm takeoff in a TPWD Cessna from Austin-Bergstrom for a routine flight to nearby Cedar Park, Havis noticed smoke in the cockpit β€”Β and a burning smell.

  • Within a few minutes, the smoke "got very thick and very black," per Havis' incident report.

What they're saying: "I leaned forward into the very heavy black smoke, as close as I could get to the gauges," Havis wrote, "and was able to note the cylinder head temperature and oil temperature gauges were fully to the redline. My oil pressure gauge was fluctuating, bouncing rapidly back and forth."

  • "Air traffic control gave me a low altitude alert and said I was at 1300 feet, and asked me if I could increase my altitude. I added throttle and then heard a couple of thuds and the engine did not respond at all to my throttle commands. I determined the engine had quit completely and was unresponsive."
  • Of note: Italics not in the original document.

It gets worse: "I told air traffic control I had zero engine. I started switching fuel tanks and adjusting the mixture, in hopes that the engine would restart, but that did not restart the engine. I could not see anything out the front and right side of the airplane, and was afraid I was going to hit a building."

Avoiding the highway: "When I advised air traffic control that I had zero engine, they pointed out Interstate 35 off to my left. I could see it out the left side window only, as I still had no visibility out the front or out the right side of the airplane, as the heavy black smoke kept pouring into the cockpit."

  • "Interstate 35 was completely full of cars and I knew an emergency landing there would not be safe and would likely have resulting casualties."

Headed for the water: "With my limited visibility, I was trying to determine a suitable place to put down the airplane that would not harm myself or others when I caught a glimpse of water (that turned out to be Lady Bird Lake) out my left side window. I then told air traffic control I was going for the water."

  • "Air traffic control asked if I could start climbing and I responded that I was going to hit the water."

That was close: "As I was turning toward the water, I saw a bridge on Interstate 35 and made an attempt to pass over the bridge safely, so I pulled back slightly on the yoke in hopes the airplane would rise slightly. I noted a light pole passing by my left side window and realized I had cleared the bridge."

Between the lines: "During emergencies, air traffic controllers work with pilots to help them find safe places to land," Federal Aviation Administration spokesperson Steve Kulm tells Axios. "The decision on where to land is ultimately up to the pilot in command."

  • A spokesperson for the National Transportation Safety Board, which is in charge of the accident investigation, declined to comment. An NTSB preliminary report noted the plane was recovered from the lake and retained for further examination.
  • The state parks department declined to make Havis available for an Axios interview because the investigation remains open. A department spokesperson said the department "can't confirm the official underlying cause" of the engine failure until the NTSB issues its final report.

What happened next: After impact, water immediately filled the cockpit.

  • While under water, Havis required three tries to release his four-point harness before swimming to the surface.
  • After Havis got aboard the tail fuselage, a paddleboarder rescued him.
  • He was transported to Dell Seton Medical Center and discharged without medication at 8:15pm, per his report.

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