Experience had taught Robert Thompson that a pilot does not turn a powerless aircraft inland, he said. So Wednesday afternoon when the engine failed in his vintage Navy SNJ-6, Thompson searched for some nearly empty shoreline at Surfside and safely bellied in.
The only nearby witnesses were a couple walking on the beach.
Thompson, 48, of Orange was piloting his 1945 plane from Camarillo to John Wayne Airport when the engine lost power about a mile offshore along the Surfside area of Seal Beach.
"I tried to get the engine going, but nothing seemed to respond," said Thompson, a veteran of 25 years of flying. "I had to make a decision, and the decision was to land on the beach and not turn inland and try to find a field."
As he spoke, firefighters tried to pull the aircraft out of the water. Except for water damage, the aircraft was intact except for a slightly dislocated wing.
Thompson said only his "pocketbook" was hurt during the emergency landing.
"It was just a survival landing, that's all," he said. "I was just trying to get down on its belly without flipping. I just chose a place where there weren't too many people on the waterline."
The emergency landing was witnessed by only a few people since the north side of the beach was practically deserted when Thompson brought down the airplane. Gino and Audrey Salegui, who live in a nearby apartment, were walking on the beach when the aircraft approached.
Salegui said he had flown SNJ-6s 30 years ago, so he stopped to admire the plane coming toward him.
"I was standing there, envious of the guy," Salegui said. "Then I saw it getting lower and lower, but the flaps weren't down. When I realized what he was doing, one wing was about four feet from us, so I pushed Audrey out of the way.
"Then he plopped it down on the beach and the plane took a 90-degree turn towards the water."
Salegui's wife, although a bit shaken by the incident, admired Thompson's skills in getting the plane down safely.
"He made a very nice, clean landing. It was very pretty," she said.
Salegui, meanwhile, ran up to make sure Thompson was not hurt.
"I told him, 'I haven't seen one of these in 30 years,' " Salegui said, and Thompson grinned.
Thompson said he had never experienced any problems in the two years he has owned and flown the $50,000 aircraft.
Orange County Fire Department personnel, with the aid of two tow trucks, finally pulled the plane out of the water onto dry sand, but Thompson will have to get the plane out of Surfside.
"It's the pilot's responsibility now," Fire Department spokesman Charles Nicoles said. "He'll probably have to get a salvage company to dismantle it and carry it out of here. It should be gone by tomorrow morning."
Thompson, acknowledging that his hands had only just stopped shaking, said he would take care of the problem. "I'll just open up my wallet and let somebody pick it up," he said.