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Out Alive Podcast

Their Plane Went Down in the Sea

A routine flight turns into a fight for life.

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Out Alive is a podcast about real people who survived the unsurvivable. Check out more seasons and episodes here.

Sydnie Uetmoto and David McMahon were young pilots in Hawaii making their way through advanced levels of flight training when they got a call to crew a short flight together in a four-seater plane. But what should have been a routine route between two islands turned into every aviator’s worst nightmare. Hear the story from the survivors’ perspectives below, or subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Transcript

Host: Welcome back to a new season of Out Alive. We have six episodes coming your way weekly, starting today. But first, some words about our sponsor.

This season of Out Alive is brought to you by Stillhouse, the official spirit of adventure.
Stillhouse makes award-winning bourbon, vodka, and whiskeys that come in unbreakable 100% stainless steel cans… because the good times go where glass can’t follow. Learn more at stillhouse.com

There’s a moment during survival situations that people struggle to explain, where time seems to both accelerate and slow down at once. This disequilibrium has a neurobiological explanation. When we experience a potential threat, our primitive, reptilian brain activates our “fight, flight, or freeze” response, enabling us to jump away from that slithering snake on the trail before our rational brain has a chance to scream, “Snake!” 

People in careers where life-or-death scenarios are part of the job undergo rigorous training to make good use of this brain function. Their goal is to take life-saving action automatically, even as they process something terrifying before them. Doctors perform emergency procedures on patients who are dying; firefighters rush toward burning buildings; and every so often, pilots land airplanes when the only runway is the open ocean. 

Out Alive Trailer: I made a decision to survive. You’re in that survival mode. The idea of dying wasn’t in my head, I knew immediately it was the worst-case scenario. I was in a fight-for-my-life situation. You’re in their house. 

Host: I’m Louisa Albanese, and you’re listening to Out Alive by Backpacker. In each episode of this podcast, we’ll bring you real stories of real people who survived the unsurvivable.

Out Alive Trailer: I saw the rope zip through the rappel ring, and I couldn’t do anything. 

Learn what went wrong, what went right, and how you can escape if the worst-case scenario happens to you. 

Out Alive Trailer: There was no way we would find anybody alive. 

Syd: My name is Sydnie. I’m from Kealakekua, Hawaii, on the Big Island, which is South Kona, and I work for Hawaiian Airlines as a 331st. 

David: My name is David McMahon, born and raised on Oahu over in Kailua, Hawaii, and also at Hawaiian Airlines. 

Host: Today, Sydnie and David are pilots for a major airline. But back in 2016, they were making their way through advanced levels of flight training while working for a small inter-island air operation in Hawaii. David had just recently been certified to fly multi-engine aircraft and needed to log as much flight time as possible. So, when he got an unexpected call to crew a short flight with another young pilot, he jumped on the opportunity.

David: For me, this whole flight was a last-minute invite. Somebody dropped out, and I got a text the night before:

“Oh, do you want to fly tomorrow?” 

Syd: I also received the text message saying, “Hey, the original pilot dropped out.

We are going to fly with Dave.” And so I was like, “Well, I don’t even know who that is.” And they’re like, “Oh no, don’t worry. He’s a cool guy.” And I’m like, “All right, so you’re just sticking with the noob,” not knowing he was part of the group message. 

David: The plan was to fly from Oahu to the Big Island and I was like, sure, I’ll join in. I woke up a little late. It was super hectic for me. I didn’t even get to eat breakfast. I think all I had was like a cup of yogurt, and I was rushing to the airport.

Syd: I think I probably ate like half a breakfast plate just cause we were rushing through the day, and I figured I’m gonna eat a good dinner because it was my dad’s birthday. I was just kind of saving my appetite for that.

David: The plan was to meet at Honolulu, have Sydnie picked me up, and we had never met each other.

Syd: And I was like, “All right. I don’t even know what he looks like, but whatever. I’m down.”

David: She picked me up, and then that drive over was just kind of small talk, getting to know each other. I’m excited to fly this aircraft.

So we get to the airport, we meet the guys they had just flown in. 

I remember first seeing the plane, and it was like straight out of Indiana Jones. Like I’d never seen it. They called it the silver bullet.

It was all aluminum, no paint whatsoever. Just shiny, like it looked cool. I think that it was the year it was designed or built was in the forties or the fifties. 

Host: The plane was a Piper Apache PA 23 150, a twin-engine, four-passenger propeller plane built in the 1950s. Sydnie, who had a bit more experience than David, had flown this particular plane once before.

Syd: The first time I saw it, I was thinking, “Oh, wow, this plane is super old.” I was a little nervous. The gauges were handwritten but it was a cool plane.

I remember having a dream like after that first flight, that the next time I took it, I’d crash. It was kind of weird. So I was a little skeptical of taking this aircraft, but, I thought nothing could go wrong because it was safe. It was taken to Oahu, and nothing happened. And, yeah.

David: We did a quick pre-flight, everything checked out, everything looked good, and we just took off, it was normal trade wind, sunny day in Oahu.

 Mileage wise, I believe it’s about 150 miles about there, give or take. As we were flying over with air traffic control, we get what you call flight following, where you follow them on radio as they look out for traffic, and you’re always in contact with them.

At this point, we were flying over the channel, kind of making our way south.

And we kind of saw some cloud layers. Not too intense, but, the way we were flying, it was basically you want to stay out of the cloud. So we requested jump up, 2,000 feet to 5,500, I believe. And so we did that. We climbed up, and that’s when things started to get a little interesting.

Syd: And we decided, because we only had one leg, each would do half the flight.

I fly half the flight; Dave’s on the radio. And then the second half, we swapped. So I think that was about mid-flight where we decided to change roles. 

David: So she had transferred the controls to me. I remember the engines started to rattle, but it wasn’t too intense to where we thought anything was going to happen. We just thought, “Okay, that’s a little interesting.”

So we’re like, “Hey, you know, the plane was running a little better down below.” Sydnie made the idea, let’s go back down. Maybe it’ll run a little smoother. And I was like, “Yeah, good call.” So we asked for the clearance go down, and we descended down.

The engine seemed fine. So it seems like it was back to normal, so everything was all good. There really wasn’t any instruments. I mean, I could look over to the left and see Sydnie had all of them in front of her.

All I had in front of me were the two propeller RPM gauges, so you see how fast they’re spinning. And I believe in that plane, normal was about 2,500 to 2,700 around that range. We’re flying, and all of a sudden, I feel the plane just kind of like dip and turn to the right.

And then since I had just finished training, it was identical to an engine out practice maneuver that we do in multi-branded training. And I was like, “Okay, something’s up.” Like immediately just natural reflexes, correct aircraft. And then I look at my instrument straight ahead and I see the right engine was at like 1,100. So it was basically just windmilling, spinning in the wind. And then the left was still going at the normal, I believe it was around 27. 

That was kind of a, oh, you know, holy shit moment.

Syd: For me, I went to college for commercial aviation and went through all the courses for aviation safety, and they always tell you like—you’re always going to think, “This is never going to happen to me.”

And so in that moment, I went back into that time where you really think, “Oh, this would never happen to me. And it does.”

David: And there’s definitely that deer-in-the-headlights moment where you’re shocked.

Then it almost takes a little while to kick yourself back into reality to be like, “Hey, this is actually happening.”

Syd: Yeah, your stomach just drops, and you’re thinking like, “What am I going to do?” 

David: We decided, let’s tell air traffic control. We have an engine issue.

Syd: I just wanted them to know that something was up, and so that’s when we took the time to check out the manual. Let’s try to see if we could get the first one to come back online.

David: That’s when the left one kind of did the same exact thing where it just stopped. pause

Everything kind of dipped to the left, and looking at the two gauges right in front of me, that left one now was basically doing the same, just windmilling.

That was another stomach drop, like, okay, this is really bad. 

Syd got on the frequency on the radio, and Syd, you know, declared the emergency. We had lost both engines. We’re going down. There’s no way we’re going to make it. I was trying to just focus on flying the aircraft because when you lose both engines, the plane doesn’t fall out of the sky. It’s just a glider at that point. But this plane, I think just because it was so old and heavy, it was gliding, but it was going down really fast.

So we didn’t really have much time. So we told them, we’re 25 miles northwest of Kona airport.

We’re going down. We’re not gonna make it. 

I don’t remember like looking out of the way. But I remember the ocean was just coming up quick. And at that point, we’re at 3,500 feet, which is not that high, especially for an aircraft with no engine falling quick.

As the ocean started to get bigger and the reality started to sink in, I remember this aircraft only had one big door, and it was on my side.

I was flying the aircraft at the time, and I remember from training, they were telling me if you’re ever going to do an off-airport landing, you know, get the door open before you land, because you don’t want to get stuck inside. So I told, said, I was like, “Ok, Syd, you got to land in this aircraft. I’m gonna open up the door, so we can get out.”

Syd: I mean, you can practice, do simulator stuff; you can’t practice ditching an aircraft. They can teach you so you know, like textbook-wise, how to ditch it. But I was just super nervous and I think without Dave, I wouldn’t have remembered to open the door. 

Host:  Ditching is the aviation term for a controlled emergency landing on water.

Syd: I think right before I transferred it, I gave them like one last call. It was like maybe out of 500 feet. I just said who we were, we’re going down now. And then I took the controls from Dave. Under 500 feet, it just happened so fast that it was just a lot going on. 

Host: Successfully landing a plane in water is a feat of expert piloting. Sydnie needed to keep the wings of the plane level. Too steep an angle can cause an impact that would flip the plane over. She also needed to keep the plane parallel to the waves, to prevent the waves from hitting the wings, which combined with the aircraft’s speed, could rotate the plane and tear it to pieces. 

Syd: I was just visualizing a runway and, I just had both hands on the yoke, which is not normal.You’d normally have one on the thrust levers because you want to kill the power. 

It was a big, not like a boom, but there was a noise that I distinctly remember. And then you just see the water splash up onto the windshield, but it was pretty hard because you just stop all of a sudden. It’s like hitting a wall. 

David: You know, we’re going probably 80 miles per hour maybe. And then all of a sudden just stopped, and luckily we didn’t roll, twist, flip, or anything. It was like, Sydnie did the best landing you could ask for. I mean, it was honestly perfect.

Syd: My front upper part of my body just hit the glare shield. And so I ended up like fracturing my nose and bleeding.

David: Yeah, this plane was so old, it only had the lap restraints, so there’s nothing to hold your shoulders in.Everything that wasn’t buckled down, even us, cause we weren’t buckled down, just slammed forward. Our headsets flew off our heads.

Syd: I remember everything just like flying forward toward us from the backseat.

David: I remember just looking down and unbuckling my seatbelt, and like I was doing it in slow motion, but it was happening fast. I looked over and made sure Sydnie wasn’t passed out either.

She was all dazed, obviously as well. By the time we came back, the water was halfway up the windshield, and since the door was open, water was flooding in the plane already.

It was probably up to the seats. It was just sinking really fast. It was kind of like a real rush to get out. For me, I stood up right away; I kind of stepped out onto the wing.

Syd: There was like a tiny window right next to me. And with the impact, my shirt got caught in one of the screws; when I was trying to get out, I was being held back. And so I noticed, so I had to rip my shirt out.

I stood up, but I mean, it’s short. So when you stand up, you stand up kind of like you head’s down and you’re like crouched down. And that’s when I realized I was bleeding, and I was telling Dave, I was like, “I can’t go in the water.”

He’s like, “Well, you can’t stay in the plane.” So I was like, “Yeah, but there’s sharks in the water.” And he’s like, “No, no, no, I’ll help you.” I remember things in slow motion, I know it was happening faster.

David: Water was still just flooding in that the plane was starting to lower, almost like Titanic at this point, and we had to get out quick. 

And I remember telling Syd before she got out and I grabbed the life vest, “Grab the life vest.” Well, the life vests, which were buckled down somewhere, weren’t there.She looks around a little more, and she finds them. And that was like a huge relief, so she hands me one, you know, we put them on and the plane really went down quick. There was no debris, there was nothing floating. We were just fortunate enough to get those life vests.

Host: For commercial airliners, the Federal Aviation Administration requires planes to be designed so that passengers and crew can evacuate within 90 seconds. But ditching any sized plane usually involves significant damage to the aircraft, causing holes that compromise the integrity of the compartments. If that happens, the aircraft will sink fairly quickly.

[00:14:09] David: You know, both in a panic state because we just crashed an airplane. And the seas, the conditions were pretty rough. 

That’s one of the roughest channels in Hawaii, and luckily it was a smaller day, although the seas were probably like 6 to 8 feet with whitewash crumbling. So it was still significantly big waves. 

I grew up in the water surfing, um, swimming. I was on the swim team when I was young, so I’m a pretty strong swimmer, and I’ve been in the ocean a lot. 

Syd was definitely in a more panic state. And so I was like in my head,”Okay, landed in the ocean, we’ve survived. This plane crashed.” I’m not going to say I was like on a high, but I was like, wow, we just did this. We’re all good. And you know, they know we crashed.

We’re good. And I remember Syd like every, I think it was like every 30 seconds or every minute, she’s like, “Where’s the Coast Guard? Where’s the Coast Guard? Where’s the Coast Guard?” And I’m like, “Oh, they’re coming. They’re coming.”

We just got to wait. I was just trying to change the conversation. Just small talk, because we had just met. 

Host: With nothing to do but wait to be rescued, Sydnie and David’s thoughts turned to their families. 

David: I definitely thought about family and my girlfriend at the time, who’s now my wife. I remember actually telling Sydnie I was going to marry her. That was the time where I decided I was like, “Oh, I’m going to marry my girlfriend.” It was Syd’s dad’s birthday that night.

Syd: I thought about what my mom was doing. I was thinking “Oh, you know, they’re at dinner, and they’re eating, and they’re probably so worried about me.”  It was like a huge birthday party too. It was his 60th. For like Japanese culture, for a man, it’s kind of a bigger party.

And so I definitely thought about that. And then just after you get through

David: And we didn’t have a life raft or anything. We just had those life vests. I think these vests were like the original vests in the aircraft because mine broke right away. Where that CO2 cartridge is, if you’re ever familiar with watching airline videos, and how they tell you to inflate, well, that just fell off. The glue separated. There wasn’t a tear or anything, but it was like a perfect hole; it just fell off. So all my air, you know, escaped. It was like, I guess I’m just treading water now.

I kept the vest with me because I wanted it, you know, it’s bright yellow. I wanted it for signaling. So I kind of just had it wrapped around me with the strap that’s along it. And then just, we just continued floating for a bit.

Host: Despite the severity of their circumstances, David and Sydnie had reasons to be hopeful. They had sent out an emergency call just seconds before crashing that gave the coast guard their coordinates. They were also able to see the see the volcanic peaks of the Big Island, which allowed them to orient themselves in the choppy waves. 

David: We knew the general area where the airport was that we were heading to, and that’s most likely where the planes were going to come from.

It wasn’t until about an hour and a half later, I think, until we finally started to see search aircraft.

I remember seeing a Navy aircraft, not close to us at that point, but it was just kind of a relief. They’re finally out here looking for us. Shortly after that we saw a C-130, which is a Coast Guard, come by. Then we saw an helicopter and all, like I said, kinda in the distance, nothing too close yet. They were just kind of doing their search grid patterns One of the bigger, I think it was a P-3 that flew right over us, directly over as 

And I remember just getting my yellow life vest, treading water. It was empty, but I was waving it over my head back and forth, slapping it on the water. Syd was splashing water, just trying to get the attention. And it just flew right directly over us and kept going. And, you know, it was just like, shit.

As time progressed, we had a couple more fly over, same thing. They flew over us probably eight to 10 times.

And by approaching that tenth time. It was like, OK, they’re not going to see us. 

Syd: You know, there’s certain moments throughout this story that like really stick out to me, and one of the main ones is the look of Dave’s eyes when the sun was setting.

That’s when I saw his mentality change. It’s like a picture in my head because he’s facing me, the orange from the sunset glows on his face. And he has these piercing blue eyes. And I could just see it in his eyes.

David: So at that point, when I finally realized they’re not going to see us, I was like, “We’ve got to save ourselves or at least try to do whatever we can.”

Host: We’ll be right back

————————-Ad——————————————

Host: David and Sydnie were drifting in the ocean in fading sunlight, some 25 miles from land in water that was 5,000 feet deep. Since ditching their plane, they’d seen nearly a dozen search and rescue aircraft fly by without seeing them. They decided that swimming toward the Big Island of Hawaii was their only option. 

David:, In my head, I’m thinking of the Hawaiian islands, we’re in the middle and from the way the wind’s going, and the current is going, it’s flowing south, and south of where we were, it was absolutely nothing. Just open ocean for thousands of miles. So it was like, if they don’t find us here, they’re not going to find us in the middle of the ocean. Um, let’s start swimming toward the island. 

And we just slowly swam, I was treading water. She had the light vest, which is super restrictive to swim with. I still have my life vest trailing with me, and it was starting to get dark. But luckily as the Big Island set up, the closer we swam, you know, we were swimming for a couple hours, not fast, just slowly making our way.

The closer you get, the calmer it gets because the Big Island kind of sticks out and blocks all that, that wind chop and current and all that. So it started to like ease off in the calmer water. So it was a lot easier to kind of swim, whereas when we first crashed, it was pretty rough.

Host: David and Sydnie swam into the night. The sky was clear, and the moon allowed them to see each other and dim reflections on the water. But after nearly eight hours of swimming without the aid of a life vest, David reached a point of total exhaustion. 

David: Finally, I said, “Syd, I just have to rest my head on you.” Because she still had her vest. So I was able to just lay on her and we just kind of floated there for a bit.

Syd: I just had my goal set on reaching the island at that point. I didn’t want to be like, “Oh, you can’t rest.” So I was like, “If you want, you can just kind of hold on to me. Cause I kinda don’t want to stop. I kind of want to keep this momentum going.” And I think that’s how we decided to kind of link together

David: She was swimming face down forward, like freestyle. And then I was on my back with her legs over my shoulders. So I was facing up, she was facing down, and we swam as one. So she was freestyle swimming, and I was kicking in the back. My abdominal area was cramping so hard just from kicking and trying to keep my head up that I couldn’t even control my legs anymore.

Syd: It was a long time that he didn’t have a life vest, and that takes a toll, so I knew he was tired. 

David: But it was to a point where I couldn’t even keep my head above water doing that on my back.

And so that was probably a lower point for me than, even than when the sun set, because I thought I was going to drown. I couldn’t keep my head above water. 

I remember her saying, “Hey, can you let me your life vest?” I guess this life vest had two compartments, and I only had done one when we went in. So she tugs, and it just inflates. And I’m like, oh my God. You know, like just like a new life; my head was above water now. Like she literally saved me at that point, just by looking at the vest; something I never even thought of doing 

Host: Even with a semi-functional life vest, Dave still needed to hold onto Sydnie. So they continued on swimming as a unit, with her paddling with her arms while David kicked. Then they encountered their next challenge. 

As she was swimming forward, we started swimming through jellyfish, and it’s nighttime.

You can’t see them, and she’s in front. So she’s getting all of it. I think I barely got stung because I’m right behind her. The jellyfish we swam through are the ones I’m very familiar with where I surf all the time over in Kailua and on the east side of Oahu. Luckily, they’re not super poisonous or bad, but you know, they’re like bee stings, so they do really, really hurt.

Host: Sydnie took the brunt of jellyfish stings as she plowed forward through the dark water. It was painful, but manageable. Then, she felt a very different kind of sting and the pain quickly turned to agony.

Syd: This last sting was just way different.

It was so painful. I like lifted my arm out of the water and it wasn’t blue. Like the other things, it was white, the tentacles, and so I just remember like trying to peel it off, but there were hooks in my skin. And so the tentacle was breaking off in pieces, so I couldn’t get a full clean tentacle off, like the previous jellyfish.

The fire started in my arm, and I could kind of just feel it. It’s like poison going through your veins. I just felt it like, going through like my chest area. And then it went to like my abdominals, and I could just feel the venom going through my body. 

David: By the time I kind of got around to try to help her. She was already starting to lose consciousness, and she rolled over on her back. Luckily she had her vest still inflated and she was breathing, but like real fast, almost like convulsing in a way. And that was extremely scary.

We’re in middle of the night, middle of the ocean, I’m thinking she’s going to die, and I’m trying to get her attention, trying to talk to her. I’m even slapping her face. Just like “Sydnie, Sydnie, Sydnie,” not responding.

Syd:  At that moment is when I was making my peace with God. You know, like if this is it, I’m okay with it. At that point, I also thought that that was it for me. That that was where I was going to die.

David: I don’t know what to do. I just keep trying to get her attention, but nothing. And you know, that sense of time, I really don’t know how long that lasted.

Syd: That pain was like the most excruciating pain I’ve ever felt, and then just like, after a little bit resting or whatever, just like kind of getting through it, pushing through it, breathing through it.

David: The breathing started to slow down again. And then she slowly started to come back.

Syd: And then that’s like how we started up again and I was like, “Yeah, we gotta get out of here.”

David: This was like a new wave of energy boost. It was like, get me the fuck out of here.

We rejoined together and I remember at that point, we were just swimming as one, just like machine swimming, not stopping, like, we’d take a break maybe every once in a while, but barely. And we just kept going, and Sydnie was just leading the charge.

Syd: I was like, Dave, you can do whatever you want back there, but I’m gonna keep it going. Like, I’m just going to keep, keep paddling. Like, if you need to rest, you can rest. I don’t mind if you want to kick, you can kick, but like, I’m just gonna, I’m going to keep us moving.

David: As we’re swimming, our life vests, mine was completely broken then. And then hers, while it kept air, it was slowly leaking. Those red tubes, you see, they say to blow into, we were both having to breathe into our vests almost every exhale. Breathe in, blow into your life vest, keep breathing, you know, that was it.

 We swam all night. I remember aiming for this red beacon, you know, night, you can’t tell how much progress you’re making, if you’re making any at all. As a twilight kind of came up, is that’s kind of another wave of energy that we had because you could start to see land. You could see roads, you could see like houses. 

We were significantly further in and that was like, a boost of like, whoa, we can actually save ourselves. You know, we’re in calm water. I remember it actually dumping rain, which was super nice. Um, We didn’t have water this whole time.

We tried to roll over and open our mouths and have the, you know, the rain—doesn’t work, you know, like we’re just water drops, hitting your tongue and just like immediately drying up, you know, it didn’t help at all, but it was nice cause it was hot and, and the rain felt good.

Syd: Because I’m so familiar with the Kona flights, I was kind of keeping track of time with the departures of the Hawaiian aircraft.. So I was like, “Ok, it’s like, probably like 6:30. Ok, it’s probably like 7.”

David: And I remember, probably around 9 or 10 in the morning, we did see a tour. And they never fly out in the ocean. It was kind of in a distance close enough to where we could tell they were there looking for us.

But, it’s basically, since we didn’t have life rafts or anything, you’re looking for two coconuts floating in the water, the size of our heads are about the size of a coconut.

As the sun rose, I remember instead of swimming as one, like we had done overnight, we kind of broke off and just swam side by side.

Our eyes are just looking straight down, it was just crystal clear, beautiful deep ocean blue, you know?

Probably like 10 feet underwater. I just saw this dark shadow. I immediately knew it was a shark. I didn’t say anything, you know, I didn’t want an alarm Syd, but she could tell right away from my eyes,  that I saw something. 

Syd: Dave kind of tried to reassure me; he was on guard. Like he was, you know, ready to try and fight it if it decided to, you know, try to harm us. 

David: And I just remember, I didn’t want to say it was a shark and panic. I was just like, “Oh, we got a friend.” And she knew right away. 

Syd: No way we’re gonna get through a plane crash, a night in the ocean, and jellyfish just for it to end with us being attacked by a shark.

David: My thought process is I’m going to keep an eye on this thing. Let’s just act like it’s not there, and just keep swimming.

Syd: It kind of just kept a little distance and never really came too close, but, I mean, we knew he was there. 

David: Other than the fin not breaking the surface, it just circled us like it does in all the movies. It literally circled us for about a half hour. And as it circled us, I kinda just followed it like feet toward it, you know, just swimming forward to, but then just always facing it.

Because if it ever came close, I was ready to just either kick it or, you know, punch it or do whatever I could. And then it just disappeared. And oddly enough, once it disappeared, it disappeared out of my mind too.

Then, about 20 minutes later, it was like deja vu, except Sydnie saw it first this time.

Syd: Seeing it with my own eyes, that was different than like seeing it through Dave, where I knew Dave saw something, but I hadn’t seen anything yet.

David: And that was a shock of like, okay, this is real. You know, another one of those like sinking moments in my stomach, because here it is, maybe it never left, and now it’s back, and now it’s just waiting for its opportunity to come, you know, and do whatever it wanted.

We just kept swimming, and I faced it, and the thing just kept circling us. It wasn’t a massive shark, but it was big enough to where it was scary.

It was probably 6 feet. It just swam in circles, and then just disappeared again. 

David: So, we’re swimming together. We’re trying to gauge our distance from land, and I remember hearing the Coast Guard helicopter,  and they have a distinct sound. I remember hearing it and didn’t think much of it.

You could kind of see it out in the distance, but you could see it going out to where we were the day before. I wasn’t too hopeful, to be honest. It just kept going out to the search grid. So I was like, okay, they definitely don’t know where we decided to swim, but we’re going to save ourselves. And it wasn’t much longer after that, that same helicopter, I could hear it. And for some reason, this was the only time in this entire ordeal, in my head like “This is it. This, no, this is the one. I know this, this is the one that’s going to save us.I know it.” I remember saying that to Sydnie. 

Syd: And in my head, I was like, “We’ve had this before where we were let down, I guess, from an aircraft that was so close.” I was like, “You know what? You do whatever you want. I’m going to keep swimming.” So I didn’t quite believe him when he told me that. 

David: For some reason, I just knew and I turned around, and it was still far away. You could see a little dot, but that thought was like coming directly toward us.

And I didn’t see that until I turned around, but I knew before I even turned around that that was it. 

And it just kept coming closer and closer and closer. And then it came right above us. And then it just did a circle.

And immediately, you know, it was like every kind of emotion outpour at once. You know, we’re happy, we’re crying, we might even be like wailing. I don’t know. It’s just like, a ball of emotion, you know, I was elated. We could finally relax. And we just, I remember that was just the most beautiful thing I ever saw was just this orange helicopter circling us in the sky.

Syd: I remembered them sliding the back door open, and then just kind of having someone wave to us, like to let us know that they do see us.

David: Then it was like out of the movies or any of the rescue shows that you see. It was pretty awesome. They get real low. The water, that’s all churned up from the helicopter wash. And then the guy jumps in full gear with, you know, wetsuit and mask and fins. And I remember he came up to us, and I just gave him a big high five.

And then, they send the basket down, they put Sydnie in, and I remember just laying on my back, watching it all, just I’m just so relieved, not even a care in the world anymore. And then after he puts her in the basket. He comes up and helps me swim.

And it’s amazing. Like the strength I felt just from, just holding onto him was like insane because it was almost like I was like standing on land or something.

Syd: From the diver’s point of view, when they grabbed us, he said he could just feel our body just like, not give out, but just like that, all that stress and the adrenaline in us, he felt it just like release.

David: You know, just like, wow. Okay. We are safe. And then they bring us into the helicopter, I was just so thirsty. And remember, the guys gave us one of their Hydro Flasks, Sydnie drank a little of it. And then I just remember just chugging it, like just finishing it. 

Syd: They gave us, they gave us like their lunch boxes. I remember specifically the banana being in there, and I tried to eat it, and my mouth was so raw from the salt water that I couldn’t eat or chew.

It just hurt. The helicopter started taking us to Kona airport.

It lands, they have like the fire and ambulance meet us. They have us wrapped in those foil blankets, and then they walk us to the stretchers, to put us into the ambulance. And at that moment was when the first time I saw my parents. 

I’m like laying in the stretcher with the neck brace on, and my mom and dad like came over me, and they were just so happy to see me. I told them, I’m so sorry, Dad, I’m so sorry. I missed it; happy birthday. And, and they were just like filled with like joy and relief

Host: After their rescue, Sydnie learned just how miraculous it was that they had been spotted in the water.

 Syd: I had the opportunity to actually meet, the Coast Guard person who actually saw us. A plane had called in debris, and because they were the closest to the location, they said, “Okay, you know what? We’ll go, we’ll go check it out.” 

And so what they did was they flew to the location. They didn’t see anything on the outbound. And then on the inbound, this girl, she told me what she had said was, “Oh, I didn’t know you guys had crab pods in Hawaii.” And one of the guys that was with her was like, “We don’t have crab pods. What are you talking about?” And she’s like “Right there, the crab pod.” and it ended up being us. She had just came to Hawaii Coast Guard from Maine, um, so she was brand new. This was like her first search and rescue mission out here.

Host: Both David and Sydnie had grown up in the Hawaiian Islands, and as they connected with their families and friends about their ordeal, they realized that their communities had mobilized multiple rescue efforts in addition to the operation carried out by the Coast Guard. 

David: My brother flew over to Kona. He rented a fishing boat, came out, trying to look for us. 

Syd: The Navy P-3 that Dave saw, that was a family friend of mine. He took it personally to go on the search and rescue.

David: I had friends, one in the Coast Guard, one in the Navy, who facilitated getting more people involved.

Syd: My uncle works for Blue Hawaiian helicopter tours. And my family, they just rented a helicopter and were trying to search for us. 

David: There’s so many side stories of everybody doing what they can to find us. 

Host: Today, Sydnie and David are both still pilots, now working for Hawaiian Airlines. In the years since their accident, they’ve met aviation professionals who were involved in their rescue. 

Syd: Maybe a year after our accident, I was getting checked out to become a captain to fly on my own. And the check airman that was giving me my check ride was one of the guys that saw called us in and called the debris in. 

David: He checked me out, same kind of situation with the same guy. And so that was kind of a really cool experience, flying with a guy who literally saved your life.

Host: We asked them how their plane crash has affected them both in their work in the air and their lives on the ground. 

Syd: I think it’s definitely made me a better pilot. I feel really safe when I fly, but just because of what happened, I still have my own little things that I bring with me, like I have a reflective mirror. I fly with an ELT still, and the plane has its own. 

Host: An ELT is an emergency location transmitter 

Syd: With an airliner going down, I’m sure it wouldn’t be as difficult to find..

And so, I mean, just for my personal comfort. I ended up taking my own little stuff with me. 

David: I look at life a little different now to, whereas, you know, just go out and live it a little more. I did before, like I, I love to travel. I love to do everything and I always have, um, but now it just kind of sinks in a little more like, you know, something really can happen and change like that.

The importance of positivity, and the importance of other people, because without each other, we wouldn’t have made it through this situation. There’s no way if I was by myself, there’s no way.

Host: This episode was produced and written by me, Louisa Albanese along with Emma Veidt. Editing was by Michael Roberts. This episode was sound designed and scored by Jason Paton. Thank you to Sydnie Uemoto and David McMahon for your sharing your story with us. If you enjoyed this episode of Out Alive please subscribe and leave us a review. 

This season of Out Alive is brought to you by Stillhouse.

Out Alive is made possible by the members of Outside+. Learn more about all the benefits of membership at backpacker.com/outsideplus. 


From 2022