The New York pilot whose plane crashed into Lake Huron on Tuesday says he's just glad to be alive after treading water for 18 hours before being rescued by a passing boater.

Mike Trapp, 42, said he was about 900 metres in the air when he started having engine trouble. He brought the plane down closer to the water when the engine came back to life, but it was too late and Trapp's two-seater Cessna hit the water and flipped over, he said.

The plane sank in less than a minute and all Trapp said he could think about was seeing his family again.

"I'm not ready to die yet, and I didn't want to die," Trapp told himself.

The father of three boys said he took off his shoes and pants to stay afloat through high waves about 27 kilometres off Michigan's east shore. Trapp said he floated and swam on his back, attempting a seven-hour swim to land, but when he got a few kilometres away the current kept him from reaching shore.

So Trapp tried to swim to a buoy, only to find another current holding him back from reaching a place to rest.

"I couldn't beat it," Trapp said of the current.

He doesn't consider himself physically fit at five feet nine inches tall and 200 pounds.

6 boats passed pilot before rescued

Trapp, a Gouverneur, N.Y., auto mechanic, said six boats passed by him by after the crash — one freighter was only 15 metres away — but no one heard or saw him. He screamed and yelled at the boats but said the loud engines prevented them from hearing him.

He even tried to use a credit card from his wallet to reflect sunlight, but no one saw it, he said.

Finally around 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, boaters saw Trapp waving his sock in the water.

"And by the grace of God they slowed down," he said.

Trapp, almost devoid of strength, said the boaters dragged him on board and called the coast guard.

Pilot in good condition

He was taken to a hospital in Harbour Beach, Mich., then transferred to Covenant HealthCare hospital in Saginaw, Mich.

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Trapp, 42, of Gouverneur, N.Y., is placed into an ambulance on Wednesday in Harbour Beach, Mich., after he was rescued from Lake Huron by a passing fishing boat. ((Stacy Langley/Huron Daily Tribune/Associated Press))

Trapp was given fluids, and medical personnel worked to raise his body temperature.

Covenant doctors said Trapp is in remarkably good condition, but is experiencing some muscle damage from his long ordeal in the lake.

"Mike's muscles are very damaged, like running a marathon without any training," said Todd Richardson, a Covenant trauma surgeon.

His physician wants to monitor his condition to ensure no kidney damage occurs from the low protein levels in his blood.

"He's doing really well, considering he crashed a plane," said Richardson.

Trapp said he still can't walk, but was hoping to be released from hospital on Saturday.

Trapp's spouse, Julie, was with him at the hospital on Thursday, and said it was a frightening ordeal for her and her sons, ages 19, 17, and 11.

Trapp was flying to Wisconsin to see his parents and said his wife had told him to take a commercial plane but he wanted to take his own aircraft because it was cheaper.

His mother, Jill, said her son has always been able to take care of himself, but was frightened to hear what he went through.

"I was scared to death and now when I hear him tell it — it's a mother's worst night mare."

At Trapp's auto garage in Gouverneur, N.Y., there was high praise for the boss and his survival swim.

"He's just strong-willed," Mike Cutway said.

Jim Dreyer, a Grand Rapids-area man who has swum across Lake Huron and other Great Lakes, said Trapp's weight probably helped insulate him against cold water.

"It's amazing what the human spirit is capable of," Dreyer told The Associated Press.

Cause of crash unknown

Trapp said his plane had a year-old engine in it, and that he has flown many times but this was his first excursion over a big body of water. He's not sure what exactly went wrong at this point.

Trapp said the engine sputtered and felt like it was running out of gas, but said there was still three hours worth of fuel in the tank.

If he had thought to grab his cellphone or the emergency locating beacon for the plane, he could have been saved much sooner, he said.

"I survived the crash, I guess that's the main priority," Trapp said.

With files from The Associated Press