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Whidbey neighbors help pilot out of crashed plane

Bernardo Malfitano, 30, poses with the wreckage of his RV-6A plane, which he crash landed in a marshy area on South Whidbey Thursday. Malfitano did not suffer serious injury in the crash.  - Justin Burnett / The Record
Bernardo Malfitano, 30, poses with the wreckage of his RV-6A plane, which he crash landed in a marshy area on South Whidbey Thursday. Malfitano did not suffer serious injury in the crash.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / The Record

A Lynnwood man crash landed his small two-seater airplane in a marshy grassland on South Whidbey Thursday.

The aircraft touched down in the fields between the waterfront community on Sunlight Beach Road and the Sun Vista Circle neighborhood off Bayview Road. The crash was reported at 4:17 p.m.

Pilot Bernardo Malfitano, 30, suffered some scrapes and bruises but was otherwise unharmed. He says the cause of the accident was fuel related.

“I had a bad fuel gauge indication,” he said. “The gauge said I had about a quarter tank. I didn’t.”

Malfitano took off earlier that day from Paine Field in his RV-6A, a small kit-built plane produced by Van’s Aircraft. The 185 horsepower single-engine aircraft has a cruising speed of about 185 mph, Malfitano said.

He first noticed a problem when the plane began to lose power. When it became clear he was out of fuel, he looked around for the nearest landing field but quickly realized that he would not make it to Whidbey Airpark, a small private landing strip a few miles to the east.

His only choice was to try and land in the grasslands behind the waterfront cabins on Sunlight Beach Road. Coincidentally, Malfitano had spent time last week practicing grass landings in Arlington so his confidence was high.

“To be honest, I wasn’t that scared,” he said.

However, the area is soft and marshy and his fixed landing struts dug into the mud quickly and caused the aircraft to flip over on to its bubble-canopy roof.

The plane came to rest on Robert Swaffield’s property. Although he didn’t witness the accident directly, his grandson, Steffan Swaffield, was working at his house at the time and went out to help Malfitano.

Steffan and several other bystanders braved thick blackberry bushes and made their way out to the crash site.

“The pilot was still inside but he seemed OK,” Steffan said.

Although the crash cage surrounding the cockpit helped prevent Malfitano from being crushed when the plane flipped over, he was trapped inside. Working together, Steffan and the others lifted the tail of the aircraft and Malfitano was able to crawl to safety.

Police and fire department responders were on the scene within minutes of the crash and also assisted. Langley Police Chief Randy Heston, who was a U.S. Navy aircraft electrician before getting into law enforcement, said Malfitano was fortunate to have landed where he did and that the outcome wasn’t worse.

“He’s lucky it’s a nice soft spot out there,” Heston said.

The plane did not appear to be leaking any fuel or otherwise be a danger to the area. Heston said the National Transportation Safety Board had declared dominion over the crash site and were expected to inspect the wreckage Friday.

It’s unclear how the plane will be removed from the marshy area but Swaffield wasn’t too concerned about his new lawn ornament. While this was the first, and hopefully the last time, a plane crashed on his property, he said he was just happy Malfitano was OK.

“I said a quick prayer for him,” he said.

 

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