Cool Under Pressure

Inside the Cockpit During the Alki Beach Plane Crash

A Cessna's plunge near one of Seattle's most populated beaches could have been a disaster if not for the grace of a veteran pilot.

By Benjamin Cassidy July 28, 2022

A Cessna 150 plane is visible underwater off the coast of West Seattle.

The U.S. Coast Guard swiftly set up a perimeter so swimmers didn't come near the crash.  

John La Porta knew he couldn't make it.

Just beyond the northern tip of Vashon Island on Tuesday afternoon, the pilot's faltering Cessna 150 had basically stopped generating power shortly after leaving Tacoma. The tower at Boeing Field thought he could still hook the small plane toward one of its runways. But that meant crossing over houses and businesses with 20-plus gallons of fuel on board. If he couldn't reach the air strip or find a clearing, it would be a big fire.

So with his plane now rendered a glider at the whims of the wind, La Porta embraced a course he thought would endanger the fewest people below and, just maybe, let him walk away. "I think I'll try and go around the outside and come in over the water," he radioed in, his voice steady, "stay away from the land."

He steered the plummeting plane around the lighthouse at Alki Beach in West Seattle, aimed for a shallow spot just off shore, cinched his shoulder straps, and yanked the nose up as high as he could.

What ensued was a splash landing nearly as graceful as any of the aquatic touchdowns on Lake Union for which this city is famous. Along the coast of one of the area's busiest beaches, during a heat wave no less, his small airplane skidded to a floating stop between paddle boarders and witnesses on shore—and no one was hurt. La Porta escaped with only a few scrapes on his legs. "I'm feeling fine,"he said Thursday by phone.

An eyewitness captured the dramatic touchdown on a video that went viral almost as quickly as the U.S. Coast Guard could set up a perimeter around the sinking plane. (The Coast Guard would return to the accidental island once again on Thursday for a ferry crash at Fauntleroy.) The internet marveled at the anonymous pilot's cool under pressure.

But La Porta, who has worked as a flight instructor for two decades and flown for nearly five, thinks he still could have done better. "I could have put the flaps down, which would have slowed me down a little bit more," he said. "And the other thing I could have done was I could have had a knife that has the strap cutter on it. And I wouldn't have been stuck."

What onlookers couldn't see was the struggle inside the aircraft as La Porta strained to remove his lap belt and shoulder straps with water coming in. He eventually managed to loosen the lap belt, take a big gulp of air, and then release the shoulder straps.

A hand awaited him when he escaped through a window and onto the plane's right wing. Some bystanders helped him swim to shore, where a retired EMT—a "godsend"—asked him to sit down and squeeze her hand. But first, La Porta had to divulge something. "When I got out, I told them that I had been exposed to Covid Saturday." If they didn't want to tend to him, he'd understand.

Police and fire department personnel would soon arrive. The Federal Aviation Administration, which is still investigating the crash, asked him to send along a report. He had to use someone else's phone; his were in the water.

La Porta returned to the scene the next day to check out the plane once it had been pulled from the Sound. He thinks, with enough work, they could use it again.

On Thursday, the Des Moines resident returned to his job as an instructor with Alternate Air. He answered questions between flights at noon and 6pm. No lingering fear, apparently. "I think we all know that anything that's mechanical can break, whether it's a lawnmower, or your car, or an airplane," he said. "And when something breaks, you just need to follow the process to get you out of the situation."

Mark Aroneck, another instructor at Alternate Air, says there's a saying in aviation: "Any landing where you can walk away from [it] is a good landing. Any landing where you can walk away and use the plane again is a great landing." La Porta's landing was "amazing."

Aroneck, who was once one of La Porta's pupils, says pilots are taught to fly the plane through the crash. "And that's what he did."

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