If it weren’t for a new Garmin 430 radio, Rusty Eichorn, and two other pilots wouldn’t have been flying over Pokegama Lake near Grand Rapids, MN just before dark last Monday. But because they were, the trio spotted a fishing boat in the middle of the lake making what Eichorn called a “death circle.” “I’ve lived on lakes most of my life and I’ve never seen a boat circling like that, but I knew what it was as soon as I saw it” said Eichorn.
Down below, 20-year old Alexander James Higginbotham was already becoming hypothermic while treading water for 15-20 minutes in the frigid 45° water. He’d been in a 14-foot fishing boat when the bolts he used to attach a seat to the boat broke, sending him backwards into the water. Higginbotham then remained near the boat, even though there was an uninhabited island 300 yards away and the shoreline was a half a mile away. “I think he thought that he could just catch the boat,” said Eichorn.
Earlier in the evening, Eichorn’s girlfriend, Lynn Bohanon had been practicing water landings for currency purposes with Eichorn in his Cessna 180 floatplane. The pair returned to the dock at their home on the lake and planned to stop flying for the day. But pilot Kenny Forst was on the dock and expressed interest in the Garmin radios that Lynn had given Rusty as a present. So after gassing the floatplane, the three pilots took off for a sunset flight with Bohanon at the controls.
“Originally Lynn was flying toward the sunset, but for some reason she turned north.” That’s when according to Eichorn, they spotted the fishing boat making a tight circle every 6-8 seconds. At that point, Eichorn took control of the plane as Bohanon and Forst began making cell phone calls to 911 and residents on the lake who might have a boat.
A 4500-hour pilot, 3600 of which are in floatplanes, Eichorn’s first thoughts were of safety. He took care to land far enough away from the circling boat that it wouldn’t hit his plane. Then as Bohanon and Forst were climbing out onto separate floats, he cautioned them to avoid the propeller. Higginbotham, who wasn’t wearing a life vest, was able to swim to the airplane and they pulled him inside.
Initially, the trio ferried Higginbotham a mile away to a dock from where he’d launched the boat. But when they arrived, he said it was the wrong dock. With darkness approaching, they decided to step taxi to the Grand Rapids Golf Course where ambulance personnel met them and transported Higginbotham for treatment. His body temperature was just 91 degrees. The trio then returned home where they faced their greatest challenge: a glassy water landing in nearly dark conditions. Reflecting later on the dock, they realized that Higginbotham might have died had they not rescued him.
The outcome for Mr. Higginbotham was not entirely positive. While he was rescued from possible death, he now faces charges of boating while under the influence. Records show that someone with the same name was cited last year for shoplifting and twice for underage drinking.
When he’s not rescuing people, Eichorn is an Itasca County Commissioner and co-owns an Army Navy store in Grand Rapids, MN. He learned to fly in 1981 and since then has owned 13 airplanes. He currently owns two Super Cubs on floats and the Cessna 180. In addition to living on a lake, he frequently flies to a cabin he owns on a lake 75 minutes away in Canada. He’s a long time member of EAA, AOPA and the Seaplane Pilots Association. While some in the local community have hailed Rusty as a hero, he said he “did what anyone else would have done in the same situation.”