Pilot had seconds to make life-or-death decisions

A matter of seconds is why Marco Bouw is still alive.

You may remember him. He got some attention last Saturday, Oct. 29, when his aerobatic biplane malfunctioned while flying over the Neuse River. Unable to regain control, Bouw had to jump clear as the biwing Pitts S-1S plummeted, following it by parachute into the river.

Bouw, a 26-year-old Pamlico resident and professional pilot for Trans State Airlines out of Missouri, has been flying since he was 16. He is a British citizen, having moved from England to his current home at the age of 3.

He said he is training in aerobatics. “My dream job is to be an airshow pilot,” he said.

It was watching local airshow pilot Hubie Tolson flying that inspired him in that direction. Bouw has placed in the top three of every competition he’s entered over the past year and a half, he said.

Bouw’s aerobatic wings of choice is a Pitts S-1S, a fabric-covered biplane first designed in 1946. “It has won more aerobatic competitions than any other plane,” he said, though in recent years it has been outperformed in power and roll rate by newer planes.

But having a reliable airplane and proven flight skill isn’t always enough.

Bouw met for an interview, wearing a jacket bearing the phrase “Chute happens: Live with it.”

It was a chute — required by law in the U.S. — that kept him alive last Saturday. That, timing, and a bit of luck.

Stunt pilots keep their aircraft over non-populated areas — farmland, woodlands such as the Croatan Forest, over airports or over large bodies such as the Neuse, which is about a mile wide where his airplane came down, within sight of Union Point.

They ride with a military-style parachute – meaning it is fairly small and not really capable of maneuvering by its wearer. It is strapped onto the body with the parachute being behind the buttocks so that the wearer actually sits on it in the airplane.

He said the FAA is investigating his crash, and that he has talked extensively with investigators about his 4 p.m. crash. “What I told them was, I was performing a maneuver,” he explained. “My control stick seemed to jam up. It wouldn’t unjam.”

Bouw went through a number of steps to get the Pitts back under control but nothing worked. By now the airplane was rolling and diving toward the ground, he said. “I knew I was going to die if I stayed in the plane.”

He said that ditching one’s airplane and using the chute are only done in life-or-death situations.

He grabbed the canopy of his airplane and pulled it back. Because of the angle and speed of the airplane – Bouw estimated he was going about 180 mph – he couldn’t easily climb onto his seat to jump out. “I had to grab a handle and hop up onto the seat like this,” he said, illustrating with the chair he sat on in the interview.

He guesses he was about 800 feet up when he jumped. He hit the water about 8 seconds later, a mere second or two after his airplane which broke to pieces when it struck the water nearby.

It wasn’t a gentle landing: landing with the parachute, he said, is like jumping from a second story window, and just clearing the airplane can be a trick. It doesn’t take much to be struck by the tail or wing when you bail out.

He said his chute deployed at about 200 feet and he landed in the river about a hundred yards from a sandbar. “I had bruises from the harness,” he said. “I hit the water hard enough that my knees swelled up for four days straight.”

He said he jumped just in the nick of time: “If I’d have jumped any later I wouldn’t have made it, because the chute wouldn’t have opened,” he said.

If he had stayed with the plane he would have been killed: it shattered on striking the river, leaving some wooden shards the size of pencils.

When he struck the water, he said he struggled to get out of the parachute as, had it landed on him, it could have filled and dragged him under. In the deep water – it was about 15 or 20 feet deep – he was disoriented but made it to the surface.

“I started screaming for help,” he said. Soon a jet ski arrived, its driver pulling him on board and he was quickly transferred to a boat.

He received medical treatment and went home. The boat was pulled from the river the next day and is now in Bouw’s hangar near Coastal Carolina Regional Airport.

Bouw has no intention of giving up aerobatic flight as a result of his accident. In fact, he hopes to be in the air practicing again within a year.

“Aerobatics is the ultimate freedom for a pilot,” he said. “You find out what kind of personality you have.”

Contact Bill Hand at bill.hand@newbernsj.com, 252-635-5677, and follow him @BillHandNBSJ.