Pilot swam to shore after plane landed in river near Saltsburg
Firefighters spent several back-breaking hours Sunday afternoon alongside a pilot, dismantling an experimental aircraft and then guiding it to the banks of the Conemaugh River after the plane landed in shallow waters.
Saltsburg fire Chief John Dice said Louis Morcheid, 64, of Loyalhanna Township was the pilot who reportedly experienced mechanical difficulties while flying his red aircraft over the border of Indiana and Westmoreland counties.
“I’ve had planes down, but not in the river,” Dice said.
Morcheid wasn’t injured in the landing and used a tire from his single-engine plane to swim to shore in about 3 feet of water, Dice said.
“Another 50 feet, if he would’ve hit that bridge abutment, it would’ve been a different story,” Dice said.
The incident was reported at 1:36 p.m., according to Indiana County 911. The pilot declined to speak to a reporter at the scene. The aircraft is registered to Morcheid, according to Federal Aviation Administration records.
Firefighters from Saltsburg and Bell Township spent a sunny Sunday afternoon devising a plan to bring the small plane to shore on a section of the river that commonly is used by kayakers. The plane landed in an area just north of Saltsburg where the river is surrounded by trees, and several old bridge piers remain in the water.
Morcheid took off from private land in Nowrytown, a few miles east of where the river landing took place, Dice said.
Several witnesses on the banks of the Indiana County side of the river heard the aircraft having mechanical problems and skim across the tops of trees, then watched as the plane landed, Dice said.
Josh Horvath said he was cutting his grass at his Bell Township home when he noticed something odd, then realized it was a plane in the center of the river and the door appeared to be open.
“It’s really shallow up there,” Horvath said.
Firefighters used Heimberger Road in Bell Township as an access site to get to the aircraft.
They used chainsaws to cut down riverside brush taller than 6 feet to clear a pathway on land. Meanwhile, Morcheid helped firefighters dismantle both wings — 250 pounds each — and remove the motor before they hoisted the 1,000-pound fuselage on a fire department’s boat, authorities said.
Both wings were brought to shore at 6:25 p.m. Fifty minutes later, the plane was floated to shore.
Mohney’s Towing operator Steve Good said he wasn’t sure whether state police were joking when they asked him to respond to a report of a plane in the Conemaugh River.
“It’s just one of those things. You don’t get that phone call every day,” he said.
Investigators from the FAA were expected to arrive Monday. A state trooper was on scene investigating.
The plane is classified as an experimental, amateur-built single-engine plane, FAA records said, and it was certified as airworthy in June 2007.
Morcheid received his pilot’s license in April 2006, and a certification as an amateur aircraft repairman in October 2007, records said.
Staff writer Jodi Weigand contributed. Renatta Signorini is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-837-5374 or [email protected].