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While practicing precision landings for an upcoming flight competition in a Cessna 150, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University senior Chris Shields and junior Connor Cvetan were doing pattern work at Palatka Municipal Airport (28J), about 35 miles east of Gainesville, Florida. They picked up an emergency Mayday on the airport’s Unicom frequency from retired airline pilot Jim Goolsby. He was experiencing engine trouble and was down to 800 feet. From their position in the landing pattern at 28J, the students were able to spot the distressed aircraft almost immediately.

Unable to make it to an airport, Goolsby first tried to reach an open field, then a road. Both were out of glide range, and he ultimately ditched his aircraft in a retention pond. The students could see him standing on the sinking aircraft, and they began to orbit the site while contacting air traffic control to summon rescue aircraft and ground support. Ultimately, a Navy helicopter rescued Goolsby, aged 81 and a pilot for 66 years, who reported he chose not to swim to shore because of a large alligator in the area.

In an ERAU report, Rich Garner, flight training manager and coach of the university’s Eagles Flight Team, said, “No one else responded, and the crashed pilot might not have had that easy of a rescue had they not been in the right location and done the right thing.”

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