Thick fog and darkness had blanketed the area near the Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg on Nov. 27 as Patrick Merkle was making his approach shortly before 5:30 p.m. in his single-engine airplane.
Merkle, 66, has been a pilot for more than 30 years and prefers flying his 45-year-old Mooney M20J to driving. A lawyer and D.C. resident, he was returning from a day trip to White Plains, New York, with an old law school friend, Jan Williams, 65, Merkle recalls during a January phone interview.
They departed Westchester County Airport at 3 p.m., according to an airport official, after checking out a property for sale that interested the Williams family. It’s a quick flight—only about 90 minutes—and one that Merkle was accustomed to making. Merkle says he knew the headwinds would be strong, so he topped off his fuel. The flight ended up taking nearly twice as much time due to the inclement weather.
Beneath Merkle, the lights of Montgomery Village grew brighter as he searched for a reference point on the ground. Williams dozed in the passenger seat. Then, Merkle recalls, he saw the county school system’s sprawling maintenance complex, just northeast of the airpark. He says relief washed over him. Used to relying on his instincts, Merkle had landed at the airpark many times, and now his eyes and gut were telling him he was close.
This time, though, he was wrong—he actually was about a mile and a half north of where he thought he was. And with the cloud cover only 200 feet above the ground, the plane was flying lower than it should have been, Merkle recalls.
Suddenly, according to Williams, the Mooney’s propeller sliced through a power line, jolting the plane like it was slamming on the brakes. In the passenger seat, Williams woke with a start, she says while recalling the incident in a January phone interview.
Then the plane cut through the second power line, stalling the propeller. The engine went quiet. Neither Merkle nor Williams had time to process what the plane had hit—to realize that the aircraft was in a cluster of power transmission towers. Powerless, they hurtled downward in a nearly 3-ton metal cylinder. Then the fog cleared and a metal framework appeared, rushing toward them—100 feet, 50 feet, 20 feet. There was a flash of light, Williams recalls. Then everything went black.
When they came to after the crash, both Merkle and Williams were bleeding. Williams says she was hanging upside down. Freezing wind gusts were rocking the plane, Merkle says, which was suspended more than 100 feet above the ground in a transmission tower just off the corner of Goshen Road and Rothbury Drive. Merkle called 911 on his cellphone.
Nearly seven hours would pass before the injured occupants of the plane were safely on the ground. The rescue mission involved specially trained members of the Montgomery County Fire & Rescue Service, a power company bucket truck that had to travel about 100 miles from Elkton, Maryland—and what first responders and Merkle would later describe as a series of miracles.
Recalling that long night, Lt. John Lann, one of the firefighters in the rescue mission, says he counted eight miracles that occurred. The first, Lann says in a January phone interview, was that the plane didn’t blow up when it hit each power line. Between conductors, overhead transmission lines routinely can carry more than 230,000 volts of electricity. The next occurred when those severed high-voltage transmission lines whipped down onto the field across the street and just lay there—no sparks, no fire, Lann says.
Then there was the position of the plane after Merkle crashed into the center of the tower; the aircraft’s nose was wedged through the metal framework and between the power lines, avoiding direct electrification. “If he had been a foot left or a foot right, it’d have been a different story,” Lann says.
The fourth miracle, he says, was that this particular tower contained a metal Verizon service pole running up through its center. Far sturdier than the malleable metal scaffolding surrounding it, the service pole withstood the impact of the crash, stopping the plane and allowing the rest of the tower to remain structurally sound enough to support its weight. The fifth was that the tower never collapsed and the sixth was that the plane never fell. The last two miracles: Both passengers survived the impact, and the pilot managed to call emergency services.
The lights had gone out at the county’s Fire Station 25 near Aspen Hill. Lt. Logan McGrane recalls surveying his station with curiosity as the backup generator rumbled on. The officer in charge that night, he texted his battalion chief, asking about the outage, and the chief texted back that a few other stations also had lost power, McGrane recalls during a January phone interview. In the county, power quickly went off in more than 85,000 homes and businesses. By the end of the night, that number would exceed 120,000, according to Pepco.
Soon, McGrane heard the news. “We have a board in the firehouse where pending calls pop up,” McGrane says, “and I saw that [there] was an airplane crash. And then I realized, Hey, that’s probably what took the power.”
A member of the fire and rescue service’s Technical Rescue Team, McGrane headed to the crash site. The team, which is part of the department’s Special Operations Section, has expertise in climbing, rappelling and rigging. Members are trained for rescue scenarios such as bridge or building collapses.
Lann, assigned to Fire Station 31 in Gaithersburg, was the first Technical Rescue Team member to arrive at the crash site. Looking up at the plane trapped in the transmission tower, he knew the team hadn’t prepared for anything quite like that.
“I’d give it about a 5% chance,” he recalls thinking about the occupants’ survival. “I thought the plane was coming down.” But the plane did not fall, and after a while, Lann says he was “pretty confident it’d stay put.”
When other members arrived, the team decided to attempt a rope rescue. They’d position a fire truck so rescuers could climb a ladder for the first 100 feet and then climb the tower to reach the plane. Once there, they’d secure the plane and haul the passengers out in a harness. “All our guys are very well trained in rope rescue. It wouldn’t have been a big deal,” McGrane says.
But officials from AUI Power, a Pepco contractor in Elkton that maintained the tower, advised otherwise when they arrived to assist in the rescue. “They basically told us the static electricity alone would kill us if we tried to go [near] that thing,” McGrane says. AUI had to ground the electricity in the tower before a rescue of any sort could be attempted, and the company needed to bring in special equipment from Elkton to do the job, according to McGrane. AUI Power didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, Merkle says he “put [his] Boy Scout skills to work” after coming to and managed to punch out what remained of the pilot’s window and the windshield. That way, he and Williams could climb out if the plane began to fall, he says.
First responders vehemently warned against doing so, saying he and Williams would certainly be electrocuted if they climbed out and onto the tower, Merkle says. But it was Williams’ inability to extricate herself, Merkle says, that made them stay put—he disagreed that they risked electrocution if they left the plane. “That’s [B.S.],” he says, noting that he believed the tower’s metal railings around the plane were “perfectly well grounded.” If the tower had been electrified, “we’d have been electrified sitting up against it,” he says. “Think about it, you know, it wouldn’t have made a difference.”
Merkle speaks confidently when it comes to situations like the one he found himself in, recalling the skills he developed as a Boy Scout and his many years working with machinery. In his life, Merkle says, he has operated cranes, built boats, driven commercial 18-wheelers, and also worked in the offshore oil industry in Galveston, Texas. These days, he is a pilot, a scuba diver, a farmer and a sailor when he isn’t practicing law.
And he’s been through his fair share of danger, too. In fact, the Nov. 27 incident wasn’t his first plane crash.
In 1992 he was flying a Piper Lance 32 airplane out of Skypark Airport in Utah with his two young kids, their nanny and his wife at the time. Merkle says he was flying through a canyon and realized he wouldn’t be able to clear an upcoming peak because of the wind coming down off the mountains. Opting for an emergency landing in the canyon, Merkle says he flew too close to a pine tree and that one of the plane’s wings sliced through it, causing the plane to crash and slide 100 yards on the ground before catching fire. “I should’ve had my gear down. I didn’t,” Merkle says. All five people escaped with minor injuries.
In December, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released a preliminary report on the November incident, noting that weather conditions and errors by Merkle contributed to the crash. A severe weather advisory had been issued for the area due to poor visibility, according to the report.
According to the report, Merkle continued his approach to Gaithersburg despite “pea soup” conditions, as he later describes the weather. “We call that ‘get-home-a-ditis,’ ” says Ross Aimer, a pilot and CEO of Aero Consulting Experts in Los Angeles, who reviewed the NTSB report for Bethesda Magazine.
Merkle says he was flying manually without using autopilot throughout the approach, which is how he says he routinely trains, but Aimer says there’s too much potential for human error in those conditions. “We try to subdue that urge. If it’s pea soup, you shouldn’t be there, No. 1,” Aimer says, noting that the report says the plane ahead of Merkle on approach to the airpark had requested a diversion minutes before.
After speaking with the airpark’s air traffic control, Merkle also had incorrectly punched in the landing approach code for the airport, forcing him to make numerous “near course reversals” before he got back on track, according to the report. Merkle says he distrusted his instruments that night, citing an issue with his altimeter, though initial testing shows the instrument was “well within the test allowable error at all ranges,” according to the report.
“My real mistake was getting down lower than I should have, not trusting my instruments,” Merkle says.
According to Aimer, Merkle’s Mooney was a type of plane “really, really not designed for this type of weather.” But Merkle believes it was the Mooney’s construction that saved his life and Williams’ as well. He says the plane’s strong body with its tubular steel frame—much like a roll cage in a NASCAR racing vehicle—is what allowed it to remain intact as he and Williams waited for the power company’s truck to arrive.
During that long wait, Merkle communicated with the first responders at the scene. He and Williams were suffering from concussion symptoms, head lacerations, broken ribs and the early stages of hypothermia, he later recalled. “And I was bleeding so much I couldn’t see because the blood was just gushing down over my eyes,” Williams says. “And I was sort of in and out of consciousness.”
When she was lucid, Williams texted her adult children. She told them she loved them, but wouldn’t reveal where she was because she didn’t want them to worry, she says.
According to an official recording of his 911 call, Merkle continually apologized to Williams, but she deflected him. “I wanted to talk about something else,” she says.
Shortly after 11 p.m., with the help of police escorts, AUI Power’s Bronto bucket truck arrived. Another hour passed while the power company crew grounded the tower. Then Lann and Luke Marlowe, a paramedic for the Technical Rescue Team, went up in the bucket as McGrane oversaw the operation from the ground, communicating with Merkle, AUI, and his men in the bucket. Once the bucket was next to the plane, Lann and Marlowe secured the aircraft to the tower with rigging. Then, shortly before 12:30 a.m. on Nov. 28, it was time to extract Merkle and Williams.
“Hey, how you doing?” Lann says he asked the pair. After making sure Williams was conscious, Lann opened the plane’s door, fastened Williams into a harness and lifted her with Merkle’s help into the bucket. “One in a harness,” he radioed down.
When McGrane heard those words, “it was a relief,” he says. “It was comforting to know my guys could get ’em off the plane.”
Merkle finally touched the ground around 12:37 a.m., 11 excruciating minutes after Williams had been lowered down. As Williams was wheeled into an ambulance, she imagined her son calling her name. “I thought, No, I’m crazy. Then, when they put me in the ambulance, my daughter was standing there. And my son was standing there,” she recalls. She says her son had deduced from her text that something was wrong and had been on the scene with his sister for hours. “I was just incredibly overcome,” Williams says.
McGrane and the team didn’t celebrate much after the rescue was complete. The pressure of the operation had finally subsided, and McGrane had two survivors to show for it. “You never want to be the only guy making the plan, and John was the perfect person to have as an adviser,” McGrane says of Lann. “John stepped off that platform and I shook his hand—just kind of this quiet tip of the hat thing, like, This is what we do.”
Still, the officers of the Technical Rescue Team spoke of the rescue as a once-in-a-lifetime service call and an example of great teamwork. But when asked about the big picture, Lann says, “Do you believe in God?”
Even McGrane, who by his own admission isn’t one to call something a miracle, ran out of things to say about the technical aspect of the mission. “As far as a miracle, you know, it probably is,” he says.
Williams and Merkle agree, both remembering how they prayed ardently while awaiting rescue. Williams says she is thankful to be alive. “We should’ve died five different ways,” she says. “Apparently it takes more than five ways to kill me.”
“That’s the mistake a lot of people are going to make, to try to rationalize this and call it a one-in-a-million, say that this was just dumb luck,” Merkle says of their survival. “But that’s not accurate. I mean, faith precedes the miracle.”
Timeline of the Plane Crash and Rescue
3 P.M. Pilot Patrick Merkle and passenger Jan Williams depart from the Westchester County Airport in White Plains, New York.
5:02 P.M. Air traffic control at Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg informs Merkle he’s made a wrong turn and reiterates the correct course.
5:18 P.M. Back on course, Merkle’s plane begins its approach to the airpark.
5:29 P.M. The plane hits a power transmission tower a mile and a half northwest of the airpark. Eighty-five thousand Pepco customers lose power.
Around 5:40 P.M. First responders make initial phone contact with Merkle and Williams. The pair are warned to stay in the plane.
8:36 P.M. Pepco confirms the transmission lines are de-energized. Crews must wait for a Bronto bucket truck to arrive from Elkton, Maryland, to rescue Merkle and Williams.
11:12 P.M. Grounding of the tower begins. The number of Pepco customers without power grows to 120,000.
12:23 A.M. Grounding is concluded. Using the bucket truck, fire and rescue crews stabilize the aircraft, securing it to the tower.
12:26 A.M. Williams is rescued.
12:37 A.M. Merkle is rescued. Both occupants are taken to a hospital.
Information was obtained from the Montgomery County Fire & Rescue Service, Pepco, air traffic control at Montgomery County Airpark, Westchester County Airport and reports in The Washington Post.
This story appears in the March/April issue of Bethesda Magazine.