It was Friday night with a difference at Leighton. The extraordinary sight of a light aircraft towed up the beach behind a giant excavator.
And then, just a day after ditching in the ocean, undercarriage somehow still intact, there it was on its way to an official examination in an unlikely location given the circumstances – on dry land.
What are the odds? An aircraft ditching in the ocean and the pilot and 15 year old passenger (her son) being able to walk/wade/swim to safety on the beach.
And next day, a casual but professional tidy up of a potential tragedy, recovery and investigation personnel laid back and chilled, locals mingling and venturing to touch the aircraft they’d seen on the telly the previous night, dunking into the ocean.
Getting the aircraft out of the water in such condition was an outstanding feat. And then, late Friday, the Hitachi excavator hauled the Piper light aircraft an easy kilometre south from about the Beehive Montessori School to the ‘hard’ at the Fremantle Surf Life Saving Club and further on to parts unknown where aviation grown-ups will opine on what went wrong.
“I knew we were getting close,” said the excavator driver when he finally got the plane off the sand below Bib & Tucker. “I could smell a steak”.
Buzzing a little louder with a couple of new hospitality venues – and the lure of Dockers performing their morning beach rituals – Leighton has been trending of late.
But even for the dizzy heights of North Freo Friday nights, this was next level.
Late Thursday afternoon, pilot Michelle Yeates performed what every pilot trains for their entire career but never expect perform.
In WA, the contemplation among recreational pilots is an emergency landing would take place in a wheatbelt paddock or on a dirt track in the Kimberley. The Indian Ocean off Leighton? Not so much.
It’s scary in the extreme and Michelle (a qualified Commercial pilot) nailed it, evidenced by the astonishing sight of relatively minor damage to the fuselage.
Speculation in pilot circles about the cause of the incident is abundant, as is routine. Michelle landed downwind, brave for an emergency landing, instead of the more conventional into wind approach. It’s a long trot south from Geraldton and headwinds can be unexpectedly high, pinching fuel supplies.
Whatever the underlying issue, Michelle made an outstanding emergency landing, putting down less than 50 metres from shore. Thankfully, autumn weather conditions were peachy.
So good the landing, the retrieved Piper’s Friday evening procession along Leighton Beach, at funereal pace, was a lap of honour of a sorts, in stark contrast to what might have been.
Leighton locals loved it, mercifully distracted from the real disaster playing out at the same time at Optus Stadium, from which was no recovery, no happy ending.
Never a dull moment on Freo’s northern beaches.
* Words and photographs by John McGlue
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