ST. JOE BEACH — A four-seat private plane bound for Panama City was forced to make an emergency landing Thursday morning along the wide sands of St. Joe Beach.
Randy Crapsey, of Port St. Joe, was co-piloting on his first training flight in 12 years when he and his instructor, Ronald Jarmon, were forced to make an emergency landing due to engine problems.
The single-engine Cessna was traveling from the Apalachicola Airport, where it was rented for Crapsey’s lesson, to the Northwest Beaches International Airport in Bay County, when the plane began experiencing difficulties before the Bay County line.
The plane was cruising at 1,500 feet and had just finished aligning their course with air traffic controllers at Tyndall Air Force Base when something went wrong, Jarmon said.
“All of a sudden the propellers stopped straight up and down,” he said.
More than nine years as a pilot and a degree in aeronautical science told Jarmon the engine had seized and he radioed Tyndall they would be forced to make an emergency landing.
The pilots had two options — land the plane on U.S. 98 or on the beach. After a hasty debate they decided on the beach because of the dangers posed by electrical wires and traffic if trying to land of the roadway, Jarmon and Crapsey said.
“We saw people out on the beach, but it wasn’t crowded so we just went through procedure, kept the nose up and slowed the plane down,” Crapsey said.
Crapsey began the plane’s decent and moved closer to the beach before handing the controls off to Jarmon. With experience on his side, Jarmon navigated the plane to a safe landing on the beach.
“We were a glider,” he said. “When you’re landing on the beach and the sand is real soft, what you don’t want to do is have the nose touch down.”
The plane made contact with the sand, and according to Crapsey rolled about 70 feet before coming to a complete stop about a quarter-mile from the Bay County line.
“It happened so fast I really didn’t have time to get nervous,” Crapsey said. “I was a little bit shaky and just put my shoulder harness around to make sure I was strapped in.”
Linda and Keith Kerper, a couple vacationing from Georgia, were sitting on the beach only yards from the site of the emergency landing and didn’t know anything had happened until it was over. They said they did not hear the plane land — the plane’s engine was no longer working — and it was only when they looked up that they noticed just how close the plane had come.
“I was sitting here reading my book, and I looked up and they were just getting out of the plane,” Linda Kerper said. “Keith was lying there asleep and I just said, ‘Keith, get up; there’s an airplane.’ He thought I was pulling his chain.”
The pilot and co-pilot walked away from the site with no injuries.
“I feel pretty fortunate we are walking away from this and we didn’t hurt anybody else,” Crapsey said.
Emergency landings and engine problems are a rarity for small planes when they are properly maintained and safety precautions are taken, Jarmon said. He said he doesn’t know what caused the engine malfunction on this occasion, but said all of the plane’s external parts were checked prior to take off and the plane had received a clean bill of health.
“It’s pretty rare for something to go wrong,” he said.
Skill and experience were an asset, but Jarmon said he could not have landed the plane safely by himself.
“I always want to give thanks to God because everything is up to him,” he said. “… Thanks to Tyndall and Mexico Beach Police and Port St. Joe and the (Gulf County) Sheriff’s Office. They did a great job trying to assist us.”
The Walton Sun
Melissa Dean / Florida Freedom Newspapers
News Herald staff writer Felicia Kitzmiller contributed to this report.