“We Are Your Only Hope”
Engine failure in a small turboprop plane flying 28,000 feet above the Pacific isn’t as scary as it sounds.
At least that’s what pilot Nathaniel Johansson will tell you about the day in November 2020, that could easily have been his last. As the owner of an aviation ferrying business, Johansson had flown dozens of planes overseas for wealthy clients. For this job, he was hired to deliver a Pilatus PC-12 NGX to Australia. “Repositioning” an aircraft is not easy. To solve for small gas tanks, pilots have to take circuitous multi-stop routes or carry a lot of extra fuel. “These little planes are hard to move far, so a lot of planning is needed,” says Johansson, 27. “It obviously comes with some risks, too.”
To make it across the massive hurdle of ocean between California and Hawaii, the Pilatus needed about double the gas it was built to carry. The solution? Pull out the plane’s eight plush, leather passenger seats and ship them via FedEx and use the space for two aluminum, 150-gallon auxiliary tanks.
Johansson typically flies solo, but for this job, he invited his former flight instructor, Kelly Michaels. At 61 she had decades of experience, and she’s Pilatus-certified and an aircraft mechanic. “I have so much respect for Kelly. She is one of the most impressive and passionate aviators I know and one of my most influential mentors,” says Johansson. “This industry can be an annoyingly jockish culture, so she overcame a lot of obstacles to get where she is.”
The pilots took off from Santa Maria, California, at 10 a.m. For five hours the fuel system worked just as smoothly as it had in their multiple test flights. “It was a beautiful sunny day, we were on time, we had a nice tailwind, and everything was perfect,” says Johansson. But after the next fuel transfer, the engine cut out. “There was no power, the plane began to depressurize, and it got dead silent,” he says.
Johansson made a mayday call on his short-range radio and reached an Alaska Airlines pilot. He asked her to let air traffic control know that he was dropping to 20,000 feet, where the air is thick enough for reignition. No luck. At 16,000 feet, he tried again. This time the engine responded, but not kindly. “There was this grinding noise and then a tremendous bang that threw us out of our seats,” says Johansson. “I looked at Kelly and said, ‘Looks like we’re landing in the ocean today.’ ”
While Michaels located the life jackets, raft, and satellite phone, Johansson updated the Alaska pilot with details to relay to the U.S. Coast Guard. It wouldn’t be easy to spot them, he told her. The plane’s paint color? A hue named Pacific Blue.
Johansson describes feeling relatively calm through most of the descent. “We’d done so much simulator training that it felt very matter-of-fact,” he says. He guided the plane into the wind to slow its 80 m.p.h. speed. Adrenalin kicked in as they approached the 10-foot waves below. “All my senses were suddenly heightened, and it hits me that we’re in the middle of nowhere with nothing in sight,” he says.
The tail made impact first, catching one of the waves with so much force the rudder tore. A few seconds later, the body of the 6,500-pound plane bounced off the surface before touching down. Once Johansson was sure the plane was steady and that neither of them was injured, he and Michaels quickly opened the emergency door and popped out the self-inflating raft.
“I just started tossing stuff in—Snickers bars, a water jug, and some Starbucks hummus,” says Johansson. Then they stepped out onto the plane’s right wing and into the small raft. With a satellite phone, Johansson contacted the Coast Guard and left voicemails for his parents and girlfriend. “We ditched the plane into the ocean, but we’re on the life raft and we have survival equipment,” he said. “We’re going to be okay, so please don’t worry.”
The Coast Guard assured the pilots that they also needn’t worry: Help was on the way. Johansson snapped a few photos before the $5-million plane slid under the surface and disappeared into the abyss.
There may be simulators for crashing a plane, but none for avoiding death by an oil tanker while riding a raft not much bigger than a pool inflatable.
It was dark by the time the Coast Guard gave word that a boat would be approaching within the hour. Johansson pictured a traditional patrol cutter speeding along to save the day. Instead, it was a 750-foot oil tanker en route to Japan.
“So it’s pitch black, it’s windy, we’re getting rocked around, and then we see this monster coming straight at us,” says Johansson. “The ship was passing way too fast, but the crew just started tossing mooring lines at us anyway.” Between the darkness and fear and chaos, he could barely see the ropes, never mind grab one.
The captain circled back, but the tanker was still traveling at a high clip and at an unfavorable angle to the 30-knot winds, which created enormous swells. More lines thrown, more lines missed. The captain went around again. This went on for hours. There may be simulators for crashing a plane, but none for avoiding death by an oil tanker while riding a raft not much bigger than a pool inflatable.
“They nearly ran us over a few times. Our raft nearly hit the propellor a few times. We tried all night to get aboard that ship,” says Johansson. “Things started getting really scary and intense and emotional because I knew that even if I could catch one of those lines, I was in no condition to climb up the side of a moving oil tanker in the middle of the night.”
Michaels certainly wasn’t. She’d been horribly seasick since boarding the raft, vomiting repeatedly into the bail bucket. Johansson would rinse it and hand it back, trying to comfort her and give her sips of bottled water. “Nathaniel took such good care of me,” she says. “I wouldn’t have made it without him.”
Things went “from bad to unbearable” says Johansson, when he realized that one of the lines had ripped up the raft’s sea anchor, a sort of underwater parachute used to prevent the inflatable from flying up or flipping. The ship was closer to killing them than saving them at this point, so Johansson wanted to call off the rescue. But when he reached for the satellite phone it was wet and wouldn’t power on. He scrambled in the darkness to transfer his flashlight’s rapidly dying AA batteries into a marine radio. There was just enough juice to make one transmission, in which he thanked the crew but said it would be safer for them to wait for the Coast Guard.
“There is no Coast Guard here,” the captain replied. “We are your only hope.”
With the help of the morning light, they gave it one more go. Johansson saw the line. He dove off the raft “lickity-split like a beaver,” as Michaels puts it, and swam to grab the line, only to be dragged underwater. He looked up and saw that the shipmates were losing grip, so he let go and paddled back to the raft. He climbed in—only to find it empty. “Kelly was gone, and my heart just sank,” says Johansson, not realizing that she had grabbed onto a second line after him. The crew couldn’t pull her in either, so she rejoined Johansson in the raft. Both were now soaking wet, freezing, and exhausted. Along with their hopes, the life raft was deflating. It had been damaged when the sea anchor tore. Johansson spent all night adding air with a handpump, but the leak was getting worse.
“We’d been in that raft for 18 hours at that point,” says Johansson. “And we put everything we had into getting aboard that ship, but we just couldn’t do it. We felt so emotionally depleted. I don’t want to say we gave up, but we had a moment where we came to peace with the fact that this might be it. We started talking about things in our lives that we wished we’d done differently and things that we regretted not having the chance to do. It got very real.”
Johansson’s first time in a cockpit was at 14, in a small plane owned by a family friend. He was instantly hooked and invested all his lawn-mowing money into aviation textbooks and a computer-based simulator. He got his private plane license on the first day he could—his 17th birthday. On his 18th he got his commercial license and later his own instructing license under Michaels’ tutelage. “The best student I ever had,” she says. “He’s a remarkable young man.”
Born and raised in Miami, Johansson sailed from an early age and became the captain of the sailing team at Ransom Everglades High School. He was recruited to the U.S. Naval Academy—his dream school—but turned down the Navy to go Big Green when he saw the beauty of the Upper Valley and imagined the views from above.
As fate would have it, a flight school in Lebanon, New Hampshire, had closed the summer before his freshman year, so he applied for a small business loan. He used it to buy and restore a 1974 Cessna to use for teaching, and suddenly he had a nice part-time job.
The schedule was brutal. Johansson, an econ major, started his flight school lessons at 5 a.m. at Lebanon Airport. Then he’d meet the sailing team for 9 a.m. lifting practice on campus, changing into his workout clothes at stoplights on the way. He reserved afternoons for classes and studying. Then he’d hit the food court and race to 6 p.m. practice. A few nights a week, he squeezed in another flying lesson or two before bed.
To earn extra cash Johansson started ferrying planes on weekends and in summers. At first he just got jockeying jobs on older planes bought and sold around the United States. By junior year, he was flying fancier jets to foreign destinations.
American Eagle hired him after graduation. He worked 15 days a month out of Reagan National, then spent the other 15 jump-seating between ferrying jobs, which took him everywhere from Northern Europe to Southeast Asia.
Back in the Pacific, Johansson and Michaels were certain they were abandoned as the oil tanker faded from view. But it turned out that a Honolulu-bound American cargo ship, aptly named the Horizon Reliance, was standing by a few miles away. At 900 feet, it was even bigger than the tanker, but with a slow approach and careful steering, the Reliance blocked the wind and kept the waves at a minimum, giving the crew a better view.
The ship had four rope cannons. Johansson missed the first two and the third was a dud. Then he leapt for the last—“like Tarzan” as one crewmember put it—and secured it to the raft so they could be reeled in. “You first,” said Johansson to Michaels when the crew lowered a ladder down the side of the ship. They waited for a swell to lift the raft, then Michaels climbed on the rungs and the crew winched her up. A few minutes later, Johansson was also aboard. Dry clothes and a hot meal welcomed them—along with many cheers. “They made it on time for ‘Cheeseburger Saturday’!” says the captain, Mark Tuck.
In Tuck’s 47-year career at sea, he’s bailed out a number of boaters, but he never imagined coming to the aid of a couple of downed pilots in the Pacific. “How do you land a plane in a windblown ocean and step off of it without a scratch?” Tuck marvels. “I was so impressed with their skills. I felt like I’d just met Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart.” His crew was honored with a U.S. Coast Guard public service award for the rescue.
Johansson now flies 747s and Dreamlifters around the globe for Atlas Air, a cargo and charter company. The upgrade is a huge relief to his girlfriend-now-wife, Riley Walker, a digital marketing consultant who, along with Johansson’s parents and siblings, suffered significant emotional trauma following the accident. It surprised no one that he wasn’t a wreck himself. “Nathaniel is so level-headed and is such a calming presence,” says Walker. “There’s no one on the planet like him.” He also works as an aviation consultant—and he will take the occasional ferrying gig for a couple of favorite clients.
While Johansson sometimes misses the high adventure aspect of his ferrying days, he prefers the comfort of knowing his wife and the rest of his family can sleep at night. “It was very intense for them, not knowing if they’d ever see me again,” he says. “For me, it was just a day at work. A bad day, but still a day at work.”
Jennifer Wulff is a freelance writer and longtime contributor to DAM.