Interstate Landing

OK, it wasn't a Piper, but I'm an Arrow owner now. You may find this interesting anyway.

We Ain’t Gonna Make It

If you want a predictable life, find another planet.
In my exquisite little Grumman American AA-1C, I had flown to Heathsville to visit an old friend, a potter named Jim Lane. The little Grumman was named N9523U by the US Government and was dressed in Royal Air Force camouflage with the signature bulls-eyes on the wings. She had no doors, but a canopy rather like a fighter plane.
I had my girlfriend , Michelle Trollope with me. ( We will discuss that name and what I should have read into it at another time.) It was Sunday, April 22, 1990.
Heathsville had a private grass runway with just enough length to get in and out safely. After our visit, Jim drove us back to the airstrip and we departed for Richmond just as it was getting dark. The trip back to my home airport was brief, about a half hour perhaps a little more. It was a clear night and the ride was smooth and peaceful.
I contacted approach control on 119.9 shortly after departing Heathsville and was turned over to the tower on 121.1 when we were about ten miles from the field. Since it was a Sunday night and the air traffic was not busy, I was cleared to land almost immediately.
About three miles from the field, at twelve hundred feet, life suddenly got more interesting. The engine died. No biggie, I thought. It appeared that I had forgotten to switch fuel tanks and calmly did so with the lever in front of my seat, and waited calmly for the engine to pick up and run again. It had happened before and there was no cause for alarm.
This time was different.
The engine never did come back to life, and I needed a plan. A Grumman AA1-C without power descends at 500 feet a minute like it or not. So I have about two minutes to prepare to die or come up with an alternative. I said to my passenger, “ We ain’t gonna make it”. I could see the runway but was descending at a rate that precluded reaching it.
I called the tower, and declared an emergency. They responded, asking how many souls on board and fuel quantity left in the tanks. I suppose they just wanted to know how big of a mess we were going to make. Be advised, I was determined to not make a mess.
During training, pilots are told that in the event of a night time emergency landing to NEVER land on a road, but pick a dark spot so one doesn’t kill anyone on the ground. Not sure if that was a rule or a guideline, Interstate 64 looked like a better choice, except for all those pesky cars and trucks. It was an Easter weekend and everyone was going home, I suppose.
I turned toward the westbound lane and continued my descent. It wasn’t looking good, but I’m trained to land this damned thing and I would not fail to do so. The last 150 feet or so, it looked like I was going to stuff it in the rear of one of those silver tank trucks. Did he have gasoline or milk? That really wasn’t important, because if I hit him in the rear, he would put on his brakes and finish us off, anyway.
I’ve only got one chance to get this right. I used my remaining altitude to dive at the truck and overtake him, doing so the wings scuffed his CB antennas, he looks up………(Wow! Airplane!) and puts on his brakes, allowing me to settle down on the road ahead of him, lifting my right wing a little to avoid a passenger car.
Ok, it looked like we might survive, but I needed to get this thing off the highway. The truck driver swerved left and right deliberately to keep cars from running into my rear. Airplanes don’t have tail lights, you know. Good thinking on his part, and I am grateful to this day. Note, that trucker never did stop and pull over, but continued on. I have to wonder why and often speculate that he may have soiled himself.
So I’m rolling out and called the tower asking if I should take the airport exit. The nice lady seemed surprised to hear from me again and asked if we were on the ground then simply advised that the tower could be of no more assistance. I continued the roll past the exit and pulled off to the shoulder, turning the aircraft sideways, letting traffic go by, unimpeded.
Good, business concluded I thought. Until I got out of the airplane whereupon my knees turned to jelly and it occurred to me what had just happened.
Every blue light in the state, it seemed, showed up on the scene of the non-accident almost immediately. The reactions were priceless.
One fellow slowed down, and out of his car window said “They really do use airplanes to catch speeders!”
The FAA guy that arrived Mike Alexesy (sp), said,” Ryland, it’s a good thing it’s night time.” With some degree of incredulity I inquired why? He pointed up and said “If it was daytime you would have killed yourself staying out of those power lines.” Since it was dark, I didn’t have that problem. Perception is reality, isn’t it?
The news crews descended like vultures with cameras rolling, disappointed that there was no fire, blood, guts or damage. They stuck the microphones in my face and asked why this happened.
“Gravity is not just a good idea, it’s the law!” was my reply. They turned off the cameras and went away.
The airport sent a tug and a tow bar out to retrieve the aircraft with a massive State Police escort and tucked it away in my hanger.
Of course there was an investigation. The Airworthiness Inspector along with the mechanics that had done an annual inspection days earlier had a brief meeting. There were two problems. One, the ball and socket throttle linkage was worn and simply fell off. The other problem was the spring on the carburetor is supposed to cause full throttle in the event of a linkage failure, but it was on backwards.
The repair was less than twenty bucks, I was alive……….so no harm , no foul. We all agreed to let it rest right there.
I learned one important thing. Inspect behind the inspectors. Self-responsibility is enhanced with self-reliance.


  • Nice story. My first airplane was a Grumman TR-2 or AA1B. :)

    Scott Sherer
    Wright Brothers Master Pilot, FAA Commercial Pilot
    Aviation Director, Piper Owner Society Forum Moderator and Pipers Author.

    Need help? Let me know!

Sign In or Register to comment.