IT WAS NEW YEAR'S EVE in the shark-inhabited waters off Hawaii's Kona Coast, and Hal Corbett was preparing to die.

Only minutes earlier, his single-engine Piper Cherokee Arrow with two passengers and a dog, had crashed into the Pacific, 3 miles short of the runway, while coming in for a landing at Keahole Airport. Ocean depth at point of impact was approximately 3,000 feet. The time was around 7 p.m., twilight.

The pilot Harold Corbett, 49, of Honolulu, slid out of the sinking cockpit and reached his wife, Dianne, 44, and their year-old cocker spaniel, treading frantically in the blackening night. There was no sgn of the other passenger, James Specter 36, a visitor from Denver.

Corbett was cut and bleeding. He had a mouth wound, three fractured ribs, a broken wrist, a crushed vertebra in his back, a deep gash in his scalp and a fracture in one knee. He was 30 pounds overweight and badly out of shape, often tiring after swimming less than 150 feet in his pool on Oahu.

Corbett, owner of a Honolulu flight school, and his passengers were photographing a spectacular Hawaiian sunset on the 90-minute flight from Honolulu International Airport to the island of Hawaii. They were in good spirits and looking forward to a New Year's Eve party with Corbett's relatives and friends at Kona. Everything was going perfectly until Corbett reduced the power setting in his preparations for landing.

"Then," he says, "there was a loud snap. The plane went into unbelievable vibration, like nothing I've ever experienced. We were at about 600 feet, vibrating like we were on a paint shaker."

The 2,300-pound blue-and-white airplane was doing 85 miles an hour when it smashed into the sea. The plane bounced, pitched forward and went in again, this time nose-down in the ocean at an angle of 30 or 40 degrees.

Dianne and the dog, Mandy, apparently were hurled forward over Corbett and Specter, through the only door, either open or blown off in the crash.

CORBETT heaved forward, head crushed between his knees. He felt a searing pain in his skull, but saw or heard nothing in the seconds after impact.

"I had the sensation that water was all around me and I was afraid to take a deep breath for fear I'd suck water into my lungs. 'I've got to get air if I'm to help the others,'" he thought to himself.

He rolled to his right in the darkness, feeling for the door that wasn't there. Then he realized that he was in the water, and he stroked his way to the top.

"It took me about five seconds to swim to Dianne. My first words were, 'Are you hurt?"

"No, I'm okay," she replied, with amazing strength in her voice. And then, "Honey, I can't swim!"

Corbett kicked off his shoes as he answered her. "Here, hold onto my shoulder. Don't worry, we don't have to swim anywhere. We just have to tread water."

"Oh, Lord, help us! Oh, Lord, save us!" she cried in the darkness, her arm moving from her husbend's shoulder to encircle his neck. "How long will it be before someone can help us, honey?"

Hal choked as he answered, because Dianne clung so tightly: "About a couple of hours, probably."

"I can never make it."

Corbett was struggling to keep himself and his wife afloat while trying to get out of his slacks. "You've got to get rid of your clothes," he told Dianne slowly and deliberately. He was already exhausted and fighting for air.

There was discouraging frustration for him in those next few seconds. He was being pushed deeper and deeper into the water by his wife. He swam back to the surface, strangling, working to hold them both up, going under twice more, her grip on him broken each time, finally surfacing separately from Dianne.

"Honey, I can't hold on," came her words through the darkness. And then: "Honey, . . .I'm going . . ."

He was frantic to reach her again. He felt suffocated. Seconds passed with no sound at all. He strained his ears for any sound. He reached out blindly, gasping. But there was only stillness. Dianne was gone.

WHEN HE FINALLY heard something, he realized it was the moan of his own weeping. "I thought, 'It's my turn.'

"The desolation seemed too much to bear. I was still listening for her voice . . .but I knew she was gone. I was praying then, but it was a desperate sort of thing - words spoken but without much love or understanding. Most everyone, in times of panic, prays in purely selfish terms, I guess. Not until much later I say my genuine prayers.

"But at the same time I felt I was beginning to get my air. My swimming was less helpless flailing. I was amazed to be able to get my lungs and I began to half-think, 'Maybe I don't have to go for a minute or two yet."

"I got my wind and twisted around in the water. There were the lights of the Kona shoreline. I could make out the lights of the airport."

Corbett was treading water with determination now. He could tell by his view of the airport lights and rotating beacon before him, 60 feet above the sea level, that he was approximately 3 miles out. He wanted to stay about where the plane had crashed, knowing the tower operator, who'd given him landing clearance, would send rescue vessels there.

At this point he had been in the ocean for 25 or 30 minutes, and he was forcing himself to carefully analyze every facet of his predicament.

"I knew it was New Year's Eve and some pilots would be drinking. Those who had would not be able to search for me. I knew the holiday meant limited Coast Guard crews and I forced myself to accept the wait of 2 to 2 1/2 hours."

Because of his years of skindiving trips to Baja California, the Caribbean and parts of Hawaii, Corbett was keenly aware of the inevitable offshore drift factor.

"I knew I had to do different types of strokes - the hand-over-head swimming was much too tiring. The pull really hurt my injured hand. First I did a dog paddle with a scissor kick, taking the work force off my right knee. Within 6 to 8 minutes these muscles would give out and I'd have to do a side stroke, using my best arm and best leg.

"The salt water felt like it was burning my eyes out of the sockets, but I couldn't keep them closed because I'd lose sense of direction. My one arm pulled much harder than the other and I'd end up in circles, heading out to sea. Sometimes I could head off the waves by watching for them, and I'd go as much as 5 minutes without getting salt in my eyes."

CORBETT, a 20,000-hour pilot , had been flying for 31 years, everything from Piper Cubs to DC-8s to the Learjet, in millions of air miles as a pilot, flight instructor and fro a time a United Airlines copilot.

This was his first air tragedy, but in 1967 he had been in a near-fatal traffic accident in Torrance, Calif. After that he had forced himself to do continual physical therapy exercises for months in order to walk again.

"I was aware of the beauty of the stars overhead, particularly the glistening Big Dipper, and I knew it got cold whenever I stopped for rest. The salt water was really stinging my eyes then, and my vision was blurred. There was a lot of pain in my left thumb and hand, and once in awhile I had the sensation of blood trickling down onto my forehead and eyelid. I had a hunk of loose flesh hanging down from my upper lip, and I wanted to save that, so I kept carefully tucking it back into place and pressing it tightly with my tongue."

Corbett's thoughts were interrupted about 9 p.m. when he spotted the first search helicopter.

"The minute I knew the searchers were at work, all my attention was directed at them. I talked to them aloud, telling them how to find me in the water."

The Coast Guard helicopter, dispatched from Barber's Point, Honolulu, was searching in a 2-mile area much farther out than where Corbett was.

"Then the helicopter went back to shore. I began feeling the search was futile and I knew I might have to be in the water all night. I was tireed and cold and seemed to be hedging on my goals, and I was kind of resting in the water.

"There was no real pattern to my swimming then - and that's probably what caused the sharks to first notice me."

CORBETT SAID his first thought about sharks came only when the sharks arrived, about 9:45 p.m.

"I had been resting when it happened, just sort of relaxing my legs in the water. Then I felt the pressure on the lower calf of my leg as I stroked the water with my back to the shore.

"I felt the length of him go over my leg, pressing with a frim pressure of 8 to 10 pounds. I guessed it to be about 6 to 7 feet long. Seconds later it or another one went by, in the opposite direction, same pressure on the other leg, 2 to 3 feet of its rough body rubbing carefully against me. I knew he was testing, measuring how alive or dead I was.

"A few seconds later it grabbed my right foot. I felt its foot like it was going for a bigger bite, I guess I began mentally reacting to the first nibble. I yanked my foot out, tearing my sock and pulling it part-way off.

"I shoved my head below the surface, yelling 'Aaah, aaaah!' as I moved 360 degrees. I knew from my years of skindiving and taking underwater movies that loud noise will scate sharks - they really are great cowards.

"I came up for air and went under again, shouting in four directions. At the same time I started a firm swim, knowing I shouldn't create a splash that would frenzy the shark toward what he'd assumed was a thrashing, injured prey. For the first time it also occured to me that my crash injuries were perhaps bleeding to attract sharks.

"A minute ot two after I'd started swimming, the fright hit me. It was confusion. Overwhelming confusion. I was crying. I just couldn't understand what was happening. From all my diving experiences I should have anticipated shark attacks - yet they came as a complete shock. I felt terror and disorientation.

"That's when I really began a communication with God. I just kept saying, out looud, in the dark: 'Lord, I don't understand. Why did I survive the crash and these hours in the water only now to be eaten by sharks?'

"I wasn't exactly complaining to God. I just desperately needed to understand. After about 3 minutes my fear subsided some and my head began to clear. I still didn't understand why I'd come to this point, but I knew some answer would come. I had the distinct impression that I was facing some tests - and that I had to take care of myself.

"When the sharks didn't come back after 10 minutes or so, I was sure they were gone.

"I thought how badly I'd feel if nobody knew I'd survived the crash and the hours since, to be killed by sharks. Also, I had so wanted it known that the cause of the crash had been mechanical, not a pilot error.

"I even thought of giving up at that point. I was tired and it would have been so simple. But the thought came back so strong that giving up would be a form of suicide."

Desperate as he was, the idea of suicide repelled him. Corbett had been a churchgoer and a person with strong religious convictions all his life.

"After my talk God I set another goal - of midnight. I had to hold on until 12. I also knew I could no longer indulge myself with long rests of 60 seconds. They could be only brief intervals, 15 to 20 seconds pauses, between vigorous swims. Idleness could bring back the sharks."

A SHORT TIME later, a big search plane came. "I could tell by the drone that it was a multi-engine. There were blinding searchlights in the aft underbelly, shining back behind, the lights sweeping with movements of the plane.

"I was elated. 'Six sweeps and he'll have me!' I thought to myself. I began talking to him aloud." But the search plane made a pass and a half and reached in to Kona.

A small helicopter searched the shoreline. There was no pattern to his flying, it seemed, jsut random swings. Corbett's mind was drifting as he watched the helicopter in the distance. Perhaps he hadn't meant to, but he'd been allowed himself to rest again.

Corbett had perfected an odd rest technique in which he would let his arms rest at his sides, expending the minimum movement to hold himself up and bend his head back, stretching his face and neck to keep them above the swells. His feet were almost in fetal arrangement as he floated vertically, one foot atop the other, as if perched on a shelf.

So at ease was he, at that point, that he was totally unprepared for: WHORMP! An upward force pushed him about a foot of the water! It had been a smooth surface, like a 2-by-12 plank, slamming heavy on the soles of both feet.

He hadn't needed any warning to go into a determined swim. "Sharks!" his mind called out in terror.

"I began a strong swim for shore, calling for help after yelling again under the surface.

"I was then aware of a little whistle or screech. I heard it again and more distinctly as screeching noises and splashing began near me in the water. Suddenly I knew it was Pacific porpoises - dolphins - discussing among themselves this human interloper in their midst.

"'My God,' I thought in that instant. 'Was it dolphins saving me from the sharks?' Then I almost felt a need for laughter, for I knew that porpoises and sharks are mortal enemies and that the sharks would be scared away.

"About a half hour or so after the 'whomping' incident, I began talking again with God. 'Lord,' I remember saying, and I was really sobbing then. 'Lord, I'm getting so fatigued and I need strength to keep going.' Then I had a strong urge to get into my calm rest position, and it came then. God's energy came.

"It was as if a small door opened in my chest - and energy just poured in. I wasn't shaken by it at the time. It just seemed natural. God was filling me with strength, and it came like warm light pouring all through me. In a second or two my chest closed and I felt happy and calm.

"Once I realized that I could call upon God and get answers and instant help, I felt I should only ask for reasonable things. I didn't want God to think I was childish. I wanted only to ask for sensible things.

"And I realized, while swimming and thinking, stroking and kicking and pondering, that there were some things I wanted to do for God - and for myself. Like helping Dianne's children in the future. And I knew I wanted to stop using God's name in vain. And I wanted to do more than teach people to fly. I wanted to find a way to help more people. Yet none of that came as bargaining with God. It came more as looking inward at myself and knowing things I needed to do to be a better person."

IT WAS ABOUT 11:30 p.m. when he began steadily thinking of the New Year's fireworks. He and Dianne had been on Kona for New Year's Eve the year before, so he knew from what direction the public spectacle would begin. Somehow it seemed so vital that he not miss the fireworks.

"I had resigned myself that the searchers had given up for the night. I knew I would be in the water at least until dawn. But I think I needed more than the time reference. Somehow I needed some link with humans. I was beginning to feel a great sense of despair."

This pilot's wristwatch, a year-old Christmas gift from Dianne, was big and he thought of dumping it. "Still, something told me to keep it. I worried about the weight, yet I knew I could use it as a signaling device in the sunlight. And the sharp cutting edge of the band was a potential weapon. I thought, too, that it would be so good, when the sun finally came up, to be able to know the exact time. So I kept my watch and wedding ring. They made me feel more secure."

The New Year's arrival was a milestone in Corbett's ordeal. And he wept aloud when midnight came.

"I saw the colored starbursts and heard the booms and I thought of the people on shore. Not just the people who knew we had crashed. But the strangers who were celebrating - just as Di and I had done last year.

"I was doing more vomiting and gagging as the night progressed. I'd ingest salt water, throw up and immediately feel better. After awhile the vomiting became as much a part of my routine as cleaning my eyes.

"It was like a constant cupful of salt water being tossed in my face. I'd take my right hand out of the water, still treading with my left, which was in great pain. I'd shake my hand to remove as much water as possible, then I'd use my index finger to wipe my upper eyelids. The stinging was fierce, nettle-sharp, and after my fingers got shriveled from so many hours in the water, it became harder and harder to clear my eyes."

A LONG ABOUT 1 a.m., the sharks came again. There was still nearly uncontrollable fear. Corbett felt a scrape of rough surface passing against his ankle. He began a strong swim toward shore, yelling as he went, watching a fin directly before him in the swells.

"I figured this one was about 6 or 7 feet also, and he was moving at a good clip ahead of me. I yelled and yelled and continued swimming - and I was aware soon that he had gone. I knew that the only way I could continue to survive these attacks was to keep moving, moving, all through the night.

In the next couple of hours there was a discouraging chop to the water. Corbett's view of the airport was too blurred for pinpoint accuracy, but he felt he was at least staying within the area of the crash, so that searchers might locate him at daybreak.

"Now I was still a couple of miles from shore and about 3 miles south of the point of impact, I was trying to get nearer the beach with a vertical-body swim, which didn't seem very effective. Instead of increased effort at this point I lapsed into what I considered an 'existence swim.'"

Around 3 a.m. Corbett was yelling, crying, pleading, feeling so overwhelmed by everything. "I think this was the time of the greatest despair. I had called on God for strength at 1 or 2 a.m., but now I felt I needed to help again more than ever.

"My neck cords were in excruciating pain from always swimming with my head back. I had intense calf and groin cramps and a great deal of pain in my injured hand and injured knee. That's when I'd tell myself, 'I've got one good leg and one good arm, I'll go with those!' but then I'd get cramps in the good arm and good leg, and I'd have to rest.

"At this point in the night I had totally given up on any idea of making headway - because of the heavy chop. I said, 'Lord, I can't take this much longer. I am beginning to fatique. I need more strength. You have to help me get to where the water is calmer.'

"'I need more strength, God,' I remember saying that. And then it came.

"My chest felt like it opened up again and I got a tremendous surge of power. It was like someone filling me with warmth and it poured into my whole body. Then it closed.

"I said 'No, God! That's not enough! I need more. I must have more power!' And, like the miracle it was, my chest opened a second time and this time the energy just filled me until I felt as strong as I had at the moment of the crash. My whole body eased. I had inner confidence and renewed hope. And all this at the time seemed normal to me.

"At the same time I realized that the chop had gone. The water had calmed. I got everything I asked for."

FOR THE NEXT three hours, until about 7 a.m., Corbett maintained a steady swim pace, alternating strokes so he never got overly tired in any one position.

By 5:30 a.m. he realized he had lost all gains and had drifted 2 miles further south. He felt he had depleted at least 80 per cent of his existing energy. He began to cry and felt he was at a breaking point. He called out to God, asking for the waves to calm again. Within minutes, he recalls, the waves subsided.

"At about 7 a.m., I was rapidly talking to myself: I'm approximately 4 miles offshore. My goal is to make 2 miles in the next 3 hours. I will have to average 1 1/2 miles an hour. I'll swim at least 55 minutes of each hour, resting about 30 seconds every 5 minutes or so.'

"This was probably the most exciting time for me. I got into a rest position and said: 'Okay, Lord, I'm ready. Send me power!'

"And there wasn't any doubt that it would come, as it had before. The power flowed in then. I just closed my eyes and felt it filling me. I knew then I could do it. And I began. I swam with a vigor I can't explain. And yet at the time it seemed absolutely natural.

"I was tiring again and was so happy to have reached both my goals - I was closer to the shore and I was into the boat area. By 10 a.m. I was totally elated. I had made two-thirds of the distance I'd set.

"I made noon my next goal. I wanted to be in the best possible position for the searchers."

AND WHAT OF the search that morning, while Corbett was setting and meeting his goals?

He knew that at about daybreak an airplane or helicopter could have begun searching for him. His hopes were rising.

At 7:15, there was enough light, plenty of visibility, but no searchers were in sight. At about 7:45 a helicopter went well out beyond him, searching 5 miles north of his location and working in the opposite direction. And around 9:30 a 28-foot fishing boat came trolling with 3/4 of a mile of him, paralleling the beach. From 8 to 11 there were three large fishing boats a mile beyond him in the water.

At 11:15 Corbett concluded that he might be able to last through the day, until evening, but he was certain he couldn't survive another night at sea.

CORBETT STARTED swimming again, with resignation. He turned his body in the water and took about three or four firm strokes before looking up.

When he raised his eyes out of the swells, he blinked at the most incredible sight of his 49 years. Directly ahead of him was a 42-foot sport fishing boat. People were gaping over the side, waving, and he knew that he was safe.

"I started crying in the water. "Thank God. Thank you, God.' And I just sobbed as they cut their speed and opened up a gangway to let me crawl aboard."

Weeping as he relived it, Corbett said: "You know, nobody on that boat saw me when it passed - except for one little boy, who thought he'd seen a man's hand in the water. After he repeated what he'd seen to a fisherman on board, the captain was alerted and they did an immediate turnaround.

"I don't remember much that was done or said. I was bleeding once I was on deck. Someone tried to cover me with a jacket. I refused it because I just didn't want to get blood on anybody's clothing. And I asked for a diet soda. I don't think anything has ever tasted better to me.

"I felt at that point I had completed all God expected from me on that day. I had a sense of completion and knew that frozen and my back ached. I was sure I couldn't move or walk a step. I cried a lot and looked out at the beautiful day as the boat carried me in.

"People on the boat stayed way back. I guess I looked pretty bad. I asked somebody for a mirror, but they said I couldn't look at myself."

Corbett's rescue boat, the Humdinger, had been chartered for the day by Beverly Hills attorney Walter Weiss and his wife, Municipal Court Judge Jacqueline Weiss, and their sons, Andrew, 10, and Jack, 13.

"Jack spotted something first," Weiss said, "and he asked the skipper, who dismissed it as a coconut. About that time I came up on deck and saw something too. It looked like a man's head and arm. I said 'That's a man!' and the skipper responded, 'My God, that must be the pilot who crashed!'"

ONCE IN THE HARBOR, Corbett was taken by ambulance to the hospital at Kona. His noon rescue on New Year's Day had come an astounding 17 hours after the crash. He had drifted more than 12 miles from the point of impact, but his long fight with the ocean current had been successful - he was still only 3 miles out from shore.

At the hospital he was treated for shock, exposure and loss of blood. His body was covered with reddish-purple bruises. His voice was weak and raspy from yelling and the constant irritation of salt water. The flesh under both arms was worn away, leaving ugly, weeping sores. His 5-foot-9 1/2 frame had lost 10 pounds, from 199 to 189.

His lacerated lip was stitched, as were shark marks and bites on his legs. The search for Dianne and the other passenger was called off - and Corbett was released, two days later, without knowing he had multiple fractures.

"I could hardly walk because of the muscle soreness and pain in my limbs and body. Subsequent examinations and X-rays turned up a fractured vertebra, fractured ribs, fractured hand and knee. They put a splint on my leg, treated a deep gash between my fingers, and put me on antibiotics to fight infection which had begun to fester around my shark wounds.

"My dentist did preliminary work to repair my broken teeth."

That patched up his body, but what of his emotions? Is there a moral to the story of the man who survived that ordeal? Corbett says there are many morals - and that intime, even more will come.

"The most remarkable thing I've come away with is faith - the sheer asking and receiving. I know now that God is just waiting to be asked. It's there and I'm going to tap that source.

"And I think I've learned that no matter what we're doing, be it work or even survival, we just should never give up. The answers can and do come."

Corbett, who has resumed work at his flight school on a limited basis, reports that he went swimming in his backyard pool 3 weeks after his ordeal, but could stay in the water only a short time.

"It was too much for me," he said. "I could only tread water for 3 or 4 minutes. I could only swim about 60 feet. Then my strength gave out."