Half submerged in shallow water and unable to loosen his harness, one thought kept occurring to Jerry Baak as he sat helplessly in his crashed plane just outside Sumter Airport.
“Where is everybody?”
Baak revisited the airport recently, not for the first time since his April 27 crash left him trapped in the cockpit for more than five hours while his friends at the airport searched for his home-built Zenith 601XL for miles around, even as he sat in the wreckage in a wooded area near the landing strip.
“I knew I was close to the road because I heard cars going by,” Baak said, “but if you look out from the road, you couldn’t have seen me.”
So as a combined rescue built up steam throughout the day, eventually roping in the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office and Shaw Air Force Base, Baak had to wait for rescuers to find him.
“I never lost consciousness,” he said. “I went through the whole thing.”
Baak was flying back from a pilots’ Breakfast Club meet-up in Ehrhardt when his plane went down on approach to the airport, where the 76-year-old amateur pilot and retired Air Force officer was slightly injured but unable to extricate himself from the plane. His onboard radio was no longer working because the plane’s aerial was driven into the swamp when his plane flipped over on impact, and his waterlogged cellphone couldn’t make any outgoing calls.
Meanwhile, airport staff and Baak’s fellow pilots launched an impromptu search for the missing pilot after his wife called the airport when he never returned from breakfast.
“We were scared, worried,” said Jeff Knauer, manager of the Sumter Airport. “It’s good to know that when one of our own is missing, everybody’s going to come looking for him.”
Baak can’t cite inexperience for the crash. He’s been flying since he graduated from training as an Air Force pilot in 1961 and continued to fly after he left the service and started working for Jones Pontiac GMC, giving up the hobby just long enough to put his children through college.
For the last two years, he’s been flying the Zenith he built himself using a kit. But on his way back to Sumter that morning, he learned his gauges weren’t reading the proper amount of fuel when his engine cut out just before he got back to his home airport.
“The propeller stopped, and for about three to five minutes I was flying without an engine, just gliding into the landing,” he said.
Having decided he passed every road that would make a suitable landing strip, he hoped his forward momentum would be enough to get him to the airport, “and I almost made it.”
Back at the airport, a half-dozen planes took off to search for Baak, tracing the route he would have flown back from Ehrhardt, even enlisting the sheriff’s office’s search plane. Knauer flew his own plane over the swamps around Santee for about an hour, looking for any sign of a downed aircraft.
“The big break came when Shaw called and said they had him on tape, which meant he had to be three to five miles outside the airport. So we all beat our feet back in this direction,” Knauer said. “It just goes to show you. We all responded out of concern, but if we’d stopped and thought about it, the statistics say a plane usually goes down within five miles of an airport.”
Chad McLeod with Hangar Twelve Charters was the first person to spot Baak’s wreckage shortly after returning from a chartered flight to Charleston. Other than some cuts and bruises, he came out of the experience none the worse for wear. The same couldn’t be said for his plane; rescue workers had to cut one of the wings away to extract him.
“I was with the family when they heard where he was,” Knauer said. “It was this great emotional roller coaster, from ‘We don’t know what happened, but it doesn’t look good,’ to ‘We know he’s in here upside down.’ ”
Despite his experience, Baak said he never thought about hanging up his aviator shades, and he expects to be on the market for a new plane soon. He still visits with his searchers regularly at the airport.
“I thank them all for their prayers,” he said. “I come out here most every day, both because I still have stuff in the hangar and just to get together.”
The story could have had a much more tragic ending. Knauer notes the airport used taxpayer money years ago to remove the pine trees from the area Baak crashed in anticipation of just such an emergency, and the next step is to remove the stumps that ultimately caused Baak’s plane to overturn.
“So the next time something like this happens, it’s a non-event, because the guy will just come in for a landing a little short,” Knauer said.