Pilots open up about crash, miraculous rescue after nearly 20 hours at sea

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It’s been little more than two weeks since David McMahon and Sydnie Uemoto were rescued after ditching their small plane in the ocean about 30 miles short of Kona.

In the days immediately after the crash and rescue, Rick McMahon, David’s father, said the ordeal they survived was something right out of a Hollywood movie.

Now on Monday, for the first time since their harrowing experience that included nearly 20 hours at sea, KHON2 spoke with the two leading characters of the real-life drama, who said they never lost hope and counted on one another to get through the difficult hours.

Life has returned somewhat to normal for McMahon and Uemoto.

On July 15, they were forced to ditch their rented twin-engine in the ocean after both engines died.

Seconds before impact, McMahon told Uemoto to take over the controls, while he grabbed life vests and opened the door, which was on his side.

“I was like what? Okay, I was like, I don’t really know what I’m doing because we don’t actually do ditchings,” Uemoto said.

Despite a hard and bruising impact, the two say they managed to get out as water immediately started rushing in.

“The cabin was under basically by the time we jumped in the water and it was just the tail sticking up, and that went down within five minutes. It was quick. It just sank,” McMahon said.

The two were adrift with nothing more than their life jackets, and McMahon’s failed to properly inflate.

Despite several flyovers, including some directly overhead, the rescuers failed to spot them in the choppy surf.

“The water was pretty rough and at that point, the sun was pretty low so the glare factor is high and every time they flew over us was just… heartbreaking,” Uemoto recalled.

“You’re a Big Island girl. When you’re looking at that island, it’s home and right there, and yet so far away,” KHON2 said.

“Yes, I have never experienced something so far, yet so close, and yet so far,” she replied.

Eventually darkness fell. The two were were cold, exhausted and fearful.

“I kind of took the lead in the first half and overnight is when she had the strength and helped me through the hours, because up to that point, I had no vest and I’ve been swimming for eight to 10 hours,” McMahon said. “I remember turning to Sydnie and saying, ‘We have to swim toward land, because we’re not going to drift in the open ocean.”

“He said, ‘Let’s just take it slow toward land. We don’t want to overexert ourselves and use up all our energy, because at that point, we don’t know how long going to be in the water,” Uemoto said.

By sunrise, the two had been in the water for nearly 15 hours. Search aircraft remained overhead, but again failed to spot them.

Now, there were new concerns. The painful stings of Portuguese man o’ war and jellyfish.

“This one, it happened in the night time, so we couldn’t see it. I was trying to grab it off, but it was like a spider web,” Uemoto said.

That’s not all. “I just kept telling her not to look down because she was worried about sharks previously,” McMahon said.

“(David) saw the first sighting and I could see it in his face he did see something but he didn’t want to frighten me so I asked him, ‘Did you see something? Did you see a shark?’ And he said yes,” Uemoto said.

Finally, after nearly 19 hours at sea, their prayers were answered.

“What is that moment like the two of you?” KHON2 asked.

“It’s very emotional. I referred to the ‘Captain Phillips’ movie, where he gets saved. It just breaks down when he’s getting help,” Uemoto said.

“I told her this is our ride and sure enough, he came up to the circle right over us and that’s when we broke down,” McMahon said.

Both pilots say they look forward to returning to Mokulele Airlines and continuing their careers as pilots.

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