Kayakers rescue pilot after small plane crashes into frozen Md. creek

Two people spring into action to rescue a pilot from a sinking plane in Edgewater, Maryland, WTOP’s Stetson Miller reports

A Navy veteran and his son had no idea they’d be orchestrating an impromptu rescue from their Anne Arundel, Maryland, home, saving a pilot who smashed into a frozen creek on the day after Christmas.

John Gelinne, a 30-year retired naval officer, and his son, John Gelinne Jr., a Marine, used kayaks to slide across Beards Creek in Edgewater and rescue the pilot from the crashed plane at around 10:30 a.m. Monday morning.

Authorities said the pilot is receiving treatment and expected to recover from his injuries.

Steve Couchman, 71, crash-landed into Beards Creek, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, just after taking off from Lee Airport. His engine “began sputtering” shortly after getting airborne, Maryland State Police said. Couchman, of Prince Frederick, Maryland, was the only person aboard the plane.

Gelinne Sr. said he thought the plane would hit their house before hitting the frozen water.

“We saw the bottom of the aircraft, very close, and then it skipped and then went in the water right there,” Gelinne Sr. said. “And so, we all scrambled out onto the patio there. We looked, and we saw him in the water.”

Seeing Couchman stuck in the creek, Gelinne Sr. and his son sprang into action, deciding they needed to act to prevent the pilot from getting hypothermia. Beards Creek’s water temperature was 30 degrees, and it only takes minutes for hypothermia to set in, according to an Anne Arundel County Fire Department spokesperson.

Gelinne Sr. said they grabbed kayaks — one red, the other yellow — a life jacket and a shovel, but not paddles.

“You see, you can’t kayak with a paddle,” he said, referring to the iced-over creek. “So you have to get a shovel. And I use the shovel to just dig into the ice and just kind of slid the kayak.”

Couchman, who had exited the plane’s cockpit, was standing on the wing of the plane when Gelinne Sr. and his son arrived. Using their kayaks, the father and son kept the pilot afloat while the plane was falling below the ice and into the water beneath.

Within 10 minutes of the crash, a Maryland Department of Natural Resources rescue boat arrived and officials took the pilot to the shore and then the hospital.

Jennifer Macallair of the Anne Arundel County Fire Department said the father and son acted “heroically” and likely saved Couchman’s life.

Looking back on the rescue, Gelinne Jr., a pilot with the Marines, said besides the ideal runway, the creek was the next best place to land the plane. As for using shovels to maneuver a kayak, “It was pretty comical actually trying to get out there,” he said.

Though it was clearly an unfortunate situation, as all plane crashes are, Gelinne Sr. said he’s glad things ended the way they did.

“The only thing I’m happy about is this guy is going to have another Christmas. Like this ended well, this could have ended really badly,” he said.

Maryland State Police are investigating the plane crash.

Below is a map of the crash’s location:

WTOP’s Veronica Canales and Stetson Miller, reporting from Edgewater, contributed to this report. 

Hugh Garbrick

Hugh graduated from the University of Maryland’s journalism college in 2020. While studying, he interned at the Queen Anne & Magnolia News, a local paper in Seattle, and reported for the school’s Capital News Service. Hugh is a lifelong MoCo resident, and has listened to the local radio quite a bit.

Luke Garrett

Luke Garrett is a D.C. native dedicated to journalism. He is a reporter and the creator, host and producer of the original WTOP podcast, “DMV Download.” The podcast debuted in 2022. On the show, Garrett takes a weekly look at the biggest stories and ideas in the D.C. region.

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