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Copyright © 2002 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of July 30 - August 5, 2003


Ketchum couple ditches plane in island bay

Express Staff Writer

Some people just live life to the fullest. You may say that with confidence about Ketchum residents Helcia Graf, 72, and Jim Ray, 80.

Jim Ray and Helcia Graf. Courtesy photo

While Ray was flying his Cessna 525 from Victoria, B.C., to Idaho, he noticed the plane losing altitude. The couple was forced to ditch the small jet in the drink south of the San Juan Islands, off the coast of Washington.

Penn Cove on Whidbey Island, 80 miles northwest of Seattle, became their unexpected and watery landing strip. Graf and Ray had been sailing on his 75-foot boat for a month. Along with their traveling companion, Rayís 13-year old yellow Labrador Maxine, they were en route to Boise to go through customs, and then were coming home to Hailey.

"Maxi loves the plane," Graf said. "Jim calls her his co-pilot."

Approximately 10 minutes into the flight, the plane started to go straight down, Graf said. "Jim was talking to Seattle and looking for a landing strip, but he couldnít make it to a nearby strip."

They were headed for the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, but ran out of maneuvering height.

Ray continued the tale: "I didnít want to be in boonies. I wanted to land where people would see us. So, I went on down and put it in the water. There was no panic, I was just playing against time."

When they ditched the jet in Penn Coveórenowned for its musselsó"Jim said, ĎAre you okay? Let me open the door,í" Graf laughed. "A gentleman to the end."

"I knew the water would start rushing in," Ray clarified. "I told her to swim to the wing tip and call Maxine. Iíve got my brief case in one hand and am looking for the life preservers when Helcia said ĎI canít make it to the shore.í The water was now through the door. Eighteen inches were left to get myself out of plane. So, I abandoned the life preservers and the briefcase and swam to her and told her, ĎPut your little arms around my neck, Iíll breast stroke.í" Maxine swam along with them.

A resident of the town of Coupeville, Sue Koleada was at work on the wharf when she heard a "kerplash."

"Itís a small town," she told a Seattle Times reporter. "Everybody heard it."

Koleda and others on the shore spotted Graf, Ray and Maxine leaving the plane and within five minutes rescued them in a few small boats.

"I had one shoe on and one shoe off," Graf said. "A nice reporter, Dennis Connolly, took us to his house. I was shivering. Iím always cold. He gave us dry clothes.

"We chartered a plane to Hailey and by 6:30 p.m. were at Warm Springs Restaurant having dinner."

The Cessna 525 that sank in about 60 feet of water, 200 yards from shore, was retrieved and taken to Seattle. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the accident.

"Jim has decided on no press interviews until the NTSB has completed its investigation," Graf said.

However, they both affirmed that Ray is an experienced pilot, who flew bombing raids over Germany in World War II.

"Iíve been flying for 60 years," he said. "Iíve flown twelve types of military aircraft, including a B-17, and general aviation jets since 1977."

He receives a Federal Aviation Administration Medical Examination annually from a Sun Valley physician.

An artist, Graf is no slouch in the excitement department, and sheís a notorious storyteller. She was owner of the Ketchum restaurant Matter of Taste for 18 years, and bought the Hailey Hotel in 1982. For both, the events of last week mark another high adventure in their lives.

"I call him my John Wayne, and thatís what he is," Graf concluded.



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