Seawind Saga: Pilot who crashed in Lake Michigan had 7 crashes in 7 days

·14 min read

Jul. 25—CHARLEVOIX — A small amphibious airplane is on the bottom of Lake Michigan after crashing during the Fourth of July weekend — but fasten your seatbelts because the pilot says how it got there is one barnstormer of a story.

Dennis Collier, a licensed Traverse City pilot, paid $110,000 for the 2010 Seawind on a Saturday, ended up in the drink a week later, and on the way crashed — by his own account — seven times, in seven days in four states.

"Oh yeah, it's a hell of a story," Collier said, of his plan to fly solo from the west coast to Boyne City. "From California to the U.P., everyone kept telling me I was lucky to be alive."

Collier wanted to capture the experience while it was fresh in his mind so he wrote a first-person account, in case it had any motion picture potential.

The Federal Aviation Administration, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Michigan State Police all performed various response and investigative functions at his crashes, too, so their information adds to the narrative.

Then there's the 88-year-old pilot who built the airplane and sold it to Collier, the inhospitable sage grasses of New Mexico, the airport manager who once worked for Virgin Galactic and the Michigan State Police troopers who helped with hydraulics.

With that baggage packed, let's prepare for departure.

On June 25, Collier flew commercial, landing at Los Angeles' LAX where Lynn Swann, the retired pilot, airplane builder and self-described "grumpy old man" who'd advertised the Seawind 3000 for sale, was there to meet him.

The two aviators drove east from Los Angeles to the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains and Bracket Field Airport — coincidentally, the filming location of "Airport '74," where Charlton Heston saved the passengers. It's also the filming location for the sequel to "Airport."

It was here where Collier got his first gander at his new-used Seawind.

At the time he was just excited about the purchase, though later said he didn't think the condition of the plane had been properly conveyed to him.

Collier said in his diary he did notice instrument and other repairs were needed, and surmised Swann used Collier's $4,000 deposit to make some, but not all, of these.

Swann says that while the plane hadn't been flown for two years, a pilot friend had taken it for a test flight and the aircraft was ship-shape, with only 20 hours of flying time on the engine.

"I went to get some supplies and told him he could wait for me or take off," Swann said. "I came back and he was already lined up to take off. And I figured, OK, cool."

Collier said nope, it wasn't. Not for him, not cool at all.

Crash #1

"I radioed to the tower for a test flight over the airport," Collier wrote. "Climbing to 500 feet above pattern altitude doing left hand turns staying within the airport's landing pattern. After the first turn I noticed the nose up without inputs ... I set up for landing after the third time around."

FAA records show Collier landed "gear up" and while he escaped injury, the Seawind got pretty banged up.

Swann said it would have been worse if he hadn't installed a block of wood under the front of the plane, and that two inches of solid oak took the brunt of the impact. Collier said Swann and his "hanger buddies" helped make repairs after which, Collier said, he felt abandoned.

"Having a sinking feeling that this was it, I had to go," Collier said.

Next stop — a layover in New Mexico and Collier's first night landing in 20 years.

It was 3:22 a.m. and the descent did not go well.

Crashes #2 and #3

"The airplane stalled and came down hard and to the left of the runway and into the weeds and bumpy sage grasses," Collier said.

Dawn broke the next morning on an ugly view.

Collier, who had again escaped injury, learned he'd wiped out a sign and some runway lights and did a number on the Seawind's tail. Plus, staff with Four Corners Airport in San Juan County had called the FAA.

A test flight ended in another runway incident, said Mike Lewis, airport manager.

"We're square," Lewis said. "We called the FAA and filed a report. From what I understand, the damage wasn't anything that would make the airplane unflyable."

FAA spokesperson Tony Molinaro said the agency does not comment on ongoing investigations, though Collier said he did talk with an investigator.

"After a lengthy explanation of landing in the dark without a landing light the FAA was satisfied with my explanation," Collier said. The investigator said at least he hadn't been "busting any airspace parameters," Collier added.

FAA records show there is restricted airspace between California and New Mexico, including over Disneyland, the White Sands Missile range and the Nevada Test and Training Range at Edwards Air Force Base — more popularly known as "Area 51."

Collier said he didn't see any UFOs but did spend a few days in New Mexico.

Which, come to think of it, sounds like a movie title, though if Hollywood comes calling Collier said he prefers, "7 Days, 7 Crashes" and has his heart set on Tom Hanks in the lead role.

Collier recorded in his diary how a local airplane mechanic found him an empty hanger where he could park the Seawind, then loaned him some tools and gave him a ride to a hardware store to fetch supplies.

Collier, who said he'd flown regularly years ago, previously built his own plane.

"I'm a mechanic" he told himself, "I can do this."

On July 2, Collier was airborne again.

Crashes #4 and #5

"My plan was to go north along the western slope of the Rockies to avoid the approaching front from Taos, New Mexico to Chicago and east was not the way to get over the mountains," Collier said.

He ran into a rain squall but the plane performed well enough for Collier to engage the auto pilot, using rivers and highways as navigational aids, turning east after about two hours in the air.

Slicing through the sky over America's breadbasket, however, Collier again encountered trouble.

The left wing's servo (hinged tab) was stuck, he said, and the nose of the plane kept pitching up. When it got worse, Collier put a rag between his knee and the yoke (steering wheel) and pushed as hard as he could toward Nebraska.

There was stalling, there was skipping through the rough and there was crisscrossing the runway but after four attempts, Collier said he landed at O'Neill Municipal Airport in Holt County.

"I forced it to the ground and off into the grasses and eventually back onto the runway and taxied to an awaiting golf cart, and an airport manager and wife team that got me to calm down from shaking," Collier said.

That team was Al and Natalie Sibi — who both said they suggested Collier to separate himself from his purchase — he on a commercial flight, the Seawind on a flatbed but both bound for Michigan.

When that idea didn't fly, the Sibis put Collier up, fed him, found a hanger for him to use and loaned him a jack and some tools.

A test flight ended in another crash, Collier said, but he went back to work on the plane and found and fixed some crossed wires.

By July 3 at 7 a.m., Collier was more than ready to put Nebraska below and behind him.

"I opened the hanger door and attempted to push the Seawind out," Collier said. "Getting a few feet, I decided to just fire it up and get going. Taxied out to the runway and with full power lifted eastward into the morning sun."

Sibi said he's known many pilots with "get-home-itus" and Collier was one of those.

Takeoff, the climb and the autopilot cruise over South Dakota and Minnesota at 7500 feet went fine. Five hours out of Nebraska, he passed Escanaba and saw Schoolcraft County Airport in Manistique, about 5 miles off.

Then, something went "clunk."

Crash #6

The hydraulic pressure gauge was registering zero, Collier said, and the fuel gauge showed an uneven supply.

He radioed the airport to ask whether there was a spotter on the ground who could look up as he passed and let him know if the landing gear was down — no response.

The engine sputtered, the gauge showed less than four gallons of fuel and Collier said he was pretty sure the landing gear under the nose wasn't down.

"I landed it with both mains and held it off as long as I could and then the nose hit and the plane skidded down the runway a few hundred yards to a stop at the edge of the pavement but well before the end of the runway," Collier said.

No injuries, the damage was repairable and while Collier didn't see anyone around — no golf cart reception this time — the terminal was within walking distance and the doors were unlocked. Collier said he went in, sat down and considered his lot.

His plane was dinged and out of fuel, his cellphone was shut off and he hadn't seen a soul.

Cue the angel choir — because there, across the street and gleaming in the sunshine, was a welcoming log-themed motel.

Holiday Motel Manistique co-owner, Pat Mead, let Collier use his phone, knew a store that sold hydraulic oil and drove Collier there.

"A lot of pilots stay here," said Kara Mead, who, in March, bought the motel with her husband. "He did take him to get the hydraulic oil. Owning a motel, you get requests sometimes that don't have to do with booking a room."

Collier arrived back at Schoolcraft Municipal about the same time as the Michigan State Police. He on foot, MSP in a cruiser with lights and sirens.

Lt. Mark Giannunzio, an assistant MSP post commander, said troopers were dispatched to the airport to check out a report that someone's landing gear wasn't working properly. At the scene, MSP turned the incident over to the FAA, Giannunzio said.

Collier writes in his diary that troopers interviewed him and loaned him a phone to call the FAA — "once again I was on the phone talking to them explaining what had occurred."

FAA spokesperson Molinaro said the agency couldn't comment on this investigation, either.

The troopers drove Collier out to the Seawind and held up the nose so he could add a quart of hydraulic oil.

Later, when reflecting on his journey, the faces of the two troopers would be added to those of all the people who'd helped him along the way.

"Everyone cares," Collier said, of the general aviation community. "They take you under their wing and into their hanger."

After a week of bumps, clunks and official inquiries from air and land authorities, Collier was finally near his goal — landing his plane in Boyne City.

He checked the fuel gauge and looked inside the tanks and realized the gauge was flipped. The tank that read empty was full, the tank that read full was nearly empty. Perhaps the pump failed, Collier thought, maybe that was the source of the "clunk."

He called a relative who offered the use of a credit card, Collier refueled and taxied to the runway.

Crash #7

The plan was to head south, over Lake Michigan, Beaver Island, Charlevoix and land at the Boyne City Municipal Airport. Per his promise to the FAA, Collier wrote in his diary he'd leave the landing gear down for the 25-minute flight.

It was July 3.

As luck would have it, President Joe Biden was visiting and Collier had to wait for the TFR, or temporary flight restriction, to be lifted before he could depart.

Back in Nebraska, Al Sibi said he was still thinking about what aircraft accident investigators call the "Swiss Cheese Model": Every airplane mishap puts a hole in the slice until the plane is more holes than cheese.

At 7:22 p.m., Flight Aware, an air travel database, shows the Seawind over Manistique. At 7:49 p.m. the plane disappears from radar.

That was about the time Collier said the engine sputtered and he smelled something burning.

He'd just passed Beaver Island, was out over open water and turned back, hoping to land at the island's airport.

But the wing flaps weren't responding and the hydraulic pressure gauge read nil. Collier said he had no choice but to attempt his first water landing.

"I glanced back over the water and realized I could judge my altitude with the glittering of the sun over the small ripple of the water," Collier said. "Time seemed to slow and I was transfixed on the beauty of the sun over the water ... I could see it coming and it was really close."

But, per his promise to the FAA, the landing gear was still down.

"The gear caught the water and the plane went forward and with a big splash went nose down vertically and into the water."

For a few seconds, Collier said he was staring straight down into the deep. Then the plane popped up, Collier sent out a distress call, checked himself for injuries — again, none —and tried to focus.

The plane was built like boat. It would float, right? He'd wait for rescue, get the plane towed to shore and fix it again.

Grounded

Collier isn't sure how much time passed before he saw a U.S. Coast Guard rescue boat headed his way. By then, the cockpit was full of water, the plane was sinking, his shoes, hat, landing light and new headset were floating away reminiscent of a scene from "Titanic."

"I was holding on, all alone, thinking about my family," Collier said. "It was terrifying. It was a time of realizing I might not make it."

A Coast Guard helicopter circled overhead. Collier by now was perilously perched on the tail. He lifted his head from his hands and gave them a wave. Minutes, later he was aboard a rescue boat.

When news the plane had crashed and sunk reached New Mexico, Lewis shared a theory: the hull of the plane had likely been breached during one of the crashes.

Collier gave a statement to MSP, was checked by a Charlevoix Hospital emergency room physician and released in the wee hours of the Fourth of July.

He said he was happy to be alive.

From the front desk of the motel, Kara Mead said she was happy for him.

"We didn't know about Nebraska, but he told us the rest and I'm just glad he's okay," she said.

If this were a movie, a director might be tempted to employ poetic license and have Collier somehow, some way, fly off into the wild blue yonder as the credits roll.

But Collier said the Seawind wasn't insured. And the experience was so traumatic, he doesn't see himself piloting an airplane again.

John Masson, U.S. Coast Guard spokesperson, said they've seen no evidence of pollution in Lake Michigan and the fuel was low so the plane, which is in about 300 feet of water, is unlikely to ever be raised.

Whether Collier incurs fines or faces legal action is up to the FAA, Masson said.

The FAA's investigation is ongoing and is expected to take several weeks to complete, Molinaro said.

Collier recorded his version of an ending in his diary. He's standing outside the hospital in Charlevoix, and the final lines read like this:

"I wondered about the day. Flying all the way from a disaster in O'Neill NB and a nose landing at Schoolcraft and almost dying. Let alone the episodes in NM and CA. It was over. I'm alive. And I'm home."

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