Pilot goes from romance to rescue, and back to romance
A lighthearted flight took an unexpected twist for pilot Mark Simmons on Monday afternoon, July 23, when engine failure forced his small airplane into Block Island Sound. Suddenly, Simmons’ concentration shifted from delivering a marriage proposal to surviving at sea with only a pair of tires to help keep him afloat.
As the Westerly Sun reports, Simmons remained calm despite his plight. After landing, he unbuckled his safety belt and clambered from the cockpit of his Piper Pawnee before clinging to the tires of his plane and settling down to wait. “Nothing prepares you for sitting in the ocean by yourself,” he commented. Yet, although he recognized the peril of the situation, Simmons didn’t panic; instead, in a flash of inspiration, he removed his orange shorts and used them as a signaling flag.
On the 3 p.m. Block Island ferry, several passengers had noticed something amiss. Peggy Montgomery, a pilot herself, peered out the window and spotted a white plane that was “flying really low.” As she watched with husband Royal Bruce Montgomery, the plane climbed a bit higher in the sky, gaining some altitude. They resumed chatting with a friend, deciding that the situation must be under control.
While the Montgomerys observed the odd behavior of the white plane, Michael Flynn and Michelle Panagos, both New Jerseyites who visit the island regularly, strolled the coastline just north of Fred Benson Town Beach. They didn’t yet realize that the plane was in trouble. “It was pretty wild — the pilot called right before leaving [and said] ‘I’ll see you in 15 minutes to a half hour hour,’” relates Flynn. “I was getting all nervous when he didn’t show. We were walking the beach... that was the plan... but there was no plane.” Flynn didn’t want to stray too far from the location where the pilot was supposed to show, but didn’t want to clue in Panagos to what was happening. The couple walked back and forth along the shore. “I was like, can we pick a direction?” remembers Panagos.
Meanwhile, as the Westerly Sun reports, Simmons’ young son played a key role in helping those searching for his father. Eight-year-old Ethan heard his father’s mayday call over the radio — it first went through at 3 p.m. —recognized his dad’s voice, and notified the Westerly Airport. It was Ethan’s quick thinking that allowed authorities to pinpoint his father’s location and expedite his rescue.
Simmons was rescued by a boater who happened to spy him desperately waving his orange shorts. As described in one of five stories the Westerly Sun has run on the incident, the captain of the 47-foot boat that rescued Simmons notified the Coast Guard after helping him safely aboard. The Coast Guard then picked Simmons up and shuttled him to their Point Judith station.
Simmons was then taken to South County Hospital. He was released later that day.
But what of the marriage proposal that went down with the plane? Later that day, Michael Flynn received a call from Mark Simmons. The pilot told Flynn that he’d had engine problems and that “when I was sitting there in the water, I wished I had a phone.” Flynn was touched, especially when the pilot declared, “I want to finish what I started. I have another plane . . .”
On Tuesday afternoon, just one day after his unexpected brush with the sea, Mark Simmons flew another plane across the Block Island Sound from Westerly. Ethan Simmons stood by in Westerly, manning the radio, reports the Westerly Sun — but didn’t need to jump into action this time.
Simmons headed toward the same stretch of beach as the day before, and towed another banner marked “Michelle will you marry me? Mike.”
This time, the trip went smoothly — for both Simmons and Flynn, who received the answer he was hoping for.
Panagos was completely surprised when the plane flew over and Flynn dropped to his knee. “She couldn’t believe it... I had to keep her from watching the news” the night before, explains Flynn. When Panagos heard what had happened from the crowd of gathering onlookers, which coincidentally included the Montgomerys, her immediate reaction was worry for the pilot: “My heart sank for a minute,” she relates, “I hoped nobody was hurt.” Flynn quickly reassured her that the pilot was fine.
TV stations have been asking the couple for interviews, but that would have meant cutting short their vacation, and neither wanted to. At the Montgomerys’ suggestion, they did, however, stop by the office of the Block Island Times.
The next big question: Will Mark Simmons attend the wedding? “Well, if he can make it,” says Flynn with a smile.
With reports from By A.J. Algier, Westerly Sun staff writer, with the Sun’s permission.