June 1, 2023


"We Are Your Only Hope": When pilot Nathaniel Johansson '18 had to ditch in the Pacific, no problem. The real nightmare came during a frantic rescue operation to pluck him from the ocean. (JENNIFER WULFF '96 | MAY-JUNE 2023, Dartmouth Alumni Magazine)

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. 

Posted by at June 1, 2023 12:00 AM