By MIRANDA ORSO
---- — PLATTSBURGH — Theodore Wright was flying planes before he was old enough to drive a car.
He spent hours practicing on simulators, learning to fly with Keith Nunn at Nunn’s Aviation in Plattsburgh.
On Sept. 20, the Port Kent native’s long experience really paid off in a big way when he had to rely on training and instinct during a crash landing that could have easily killed both Ted and his passenger, Raymond Fosdick, 36.
“He chose to be a pilot at 15,” Ted’s mother, Kathleen, said in a phone interview Tuesday.
Her heart plummeted when she picked up her phone to find the U.S. Coast Guard was on the line.
“They said, ‘Your son has set off an emergency beacon,’” she recalled.
She began to panic, remembers screaming, “God, no!” over and over.
Ted, 27, who lives part of the year in Clearwater, Texas, had lifted into the sky that day intending to fly his twin-engine Beechcraft Baron from Baytown, Texas, to Sarasota, Fla.
But some 30 miles off the Louisiana coastline, the plane caught fire.
He told the Houston Chronicle on Monday that he knew there was no time for hesitation when smoke started to fill the plane’s cockpit.
“What are we going to do? Freak out and let the airplane crash and burn to death ...? You don’t have a lot of choice,” he told the newspaper.
“When there’s a fire in the cockpit and it’s filled with smoke, there’s nothing else to go by but instinct,” Kathleen echoed her son’s words.
PLANES PASSED OVER
Ted notified air-traffic controllers in Houston of the plane’s demise before cutting the electric power in an attempt to make the fire fizzle out.
He also activated the aircraft’s emergency beacon while maneuvering the melting controls for a crash landing, directly into the gulf’s blue waters.
“The flames melted the windshield and melted his instruments,” Kathleen said. “He had to point (the plane) down and go straight for the water at 200 mph.”
As the plane dove, Raymond grabbed life vests, along with a bag of survival gear. Ted went for his iPad, sealed in a waterproof case, and a hand-held emergency beacon used to transmit the pair’s location to authorities.
Ted likened the impact of hitting the water to crashing into a brick wall; he shouted, “Hold on!” prior to the plane’s nosedive, he told the Chronicle.
“The water started sucking them under immediately,” Kathleen said.
While floating in the gulf, hoping for a quick rescue, Ted recorded a short video, capturing their experience.
At least two planes passed over them.
“We’re waving our arms, and they are flying over top of us,” he told the newspaper. “Surely, they saw us, but no. I’m starting to get nervous. The sun is setting, and they have 40 minutes to spot us, or we’re done.”
The two men grew less hopeful as night crept closer and jellyfish began to bite and sting.
But 20 minutes before sunset, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection aircraft spotted them and notified the Coast Guard of their location.
A MH-65C Dolphin helicopter was soon hovering above, a rescue swimmer jumped in the water and a basket was lowered.
The men were rescued in less than four hours, Kathleen said, praising the Coast Guard.
Despite sore muscles and jellyfish stings, she said her son and Raymond survived the crash with relatively little injury.
“He’s very, very lucky,” she said of Ted. “He beat death. The fact that he survived is just amazing.”
Tuesday, Ted boarded a jetliner, flying to New York City for an interview on “The Today Show” with Matt Lauer scheduled to air Wednesday morning.
Kathleen said her son’s incredible story has left her with a new outlook on life.
“You just realize that life can be gone in a second,” she said. “And you have to learn to not sweat the small stuff.”
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ON THE WEB Watch the video Ted Wright recorded on his iPad while afloat on the Gulf of Mexico after ditching his plane: http://youtu.be/980Xnm6cjsY. See some footage by KeyeTV of the rescue: http://tinyurl.com/9c7yn2f.