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Pilot's son helps direct rescue effort after banner-towing airplane goes down

By Chuck Potter

Publication: theday.com

Published July 23. 2012 5:00PM   Updated July 24. 2012 6:45AM

An 8-year-old boy and a good Samaritan boater took part in rescuing a pilot whose plane went down in Block Island Sound Monday afternoon.

A marriage proposal also went down.

The Piper Pawnee plane, PA-25, had taken off at the Westerly Airport about 3 p.m., en route to Block Island, towing a banner that said, "Will you marry me," said James Warcup, an aeronautics inspector at Rhode Island Airport Corp.

"Within 10 minutes the pilot reported a loss of power," Warcup said. "He elected to ditch the plane in the Block Island Sound. When he did, the landing gear broke."

The Piper is registered to Mark Simmons of Pawcatuck, owner of Simmons Aviation, which has a division called Banner Tow-USA, according to the company's website. It is unclear if Simmons, a pilot who made a crash landing on a New Jersey golf course in 2010, was at the controls Monday.

Lt. Bryan Swintek, a Coast Guard spokesman at the Southeastern New England Sector at Woods Hole, Mass., said the Coast Guard took a call from New England Air Control about 3:21 p.m. reporting a radio transmission between a pilot and a young child who was later identified as the pilot's son.

Swintek said the pilot was reporting he was in distress and was "going down."

The Coast Guard contacted the boy, who said his dad had put out the distress call soon after takeoff, which helped the Coast Guard's search.

Swintek said as soon as the Coast Guard received the call it immediately put out an "urgent marine information broadcast" on the universal marine radio Channel 16.

Boats from Coast Guard stations at Castle Hill, Point Judith and Block Island were deployed for the search, along with a helicopter from Cape Cod. He said first responders from area towns were also alerted.

"We basically sent everyone in the area," he said. "We didn't have a good location."

He said a civilian boater rescued the pilot from the water about 3 miles south of Ninigret Pond in Charlestown, R.I.

The pilot was then brought aboard a Coast Guard vessel and taken to Point Judith for medical evaluation.

"He was alert and oriented when they got him," Swintek said. "He was speaking and did not appear to have any serious injuries."

Warcup said the Coast Guard dropped the uninjured pilot off at Point Judith about 5 p.m.

Swintek credited the son with being a big help in the mission.

"He was incredibly calm," Swintek said. "He played a key role in helping his dad."

Swintek said the aircraft had not yet been located or recovered.

"We're now making the transition from a search-and-rescue mission to a pollution-and-debris response," he said.

Simmons was the registered owner of another Piper Pawnee PA25 that made an emergency landing on a Westerly lawn on the Fourth of July in 2009. He was not piloting that flight.

Simmons was at the controls of a 1981 Skyhawk in June 2010, that made a crash landing on a fairway of Haworth (N.J.) Country Club after the aircraft lost power at 1,500 feet. Simmons was unhurt in that crash.

According to the FAA report, after landing Simmons had to maneuver the airplane to avoid a golfer. The airplane then became airborne again for about 200 feet, until the right wing struck a tree, spinning the aircraft around and causing it to come to rest in a sand trap.

c.potter@theday.com

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