[ Miracles ]

How to Stick an Emergency Landing

"No observed traffic west of the airport, have a good night." Those words from Jefferson City tower faded from the speaker and the cockpit of our Piper Cherokee was once again silent - except for the drone of the powerful engine. As I monitored our progress on the GPS, my wife and copilot Sue was absorbed in the lights scattered across the countryside. Our time in the sky is always a precious opportunity to get away from distractions and contemplate every aspect of our lives, from family, to the God who created this great universe we enjoy and seemingly suspends us in His own hand.

Ten days earlier we had made another night flight. I had dutifully filled in my logbook with the entry for the 2.9 hour flight, mentally noting that we had burned 2.6 hours of fuel after refueling.

As we floated westward, the predicted headwinds began increasing sooner than expected. It became apparent that when we arrived at our destination, our fuel reserve would be thirty minutes instead of forty-five. Still, I was not concerned. On a regular schedule I switched between the fuel tanks in our left and right wings. On such a smooth flight, the tiniest imbalance would cause us to bank ever-so-slightly to the left or right. The GPS was ticking down the miles to our destination as I made the last switch. Soon we would be taxiing up to a self service gas pump on a deserted airport to refuel.

Runway lights at many small airports are turned on by the pilot clicking the transmit button on his radio. Two miles out, I went through the drill, making five clicks on my microphone. Nothing happened. I tried again. Still the world was in darkness.

By now we were over the airport. I could see a lighted windsock, but no runway was to be found. I had a choice - circle in the dark and try again to turn on the runway lights possibly without success or go on to the next airport some twelve minutes away. The decision came quickly and we headed west once again.

I switched to the right tank and within moments there was a sputter and the sound from up front wound down, leaving only the wind noise of our powerless ton of metal gliding through the night sky. That should not have happened!

I quickly switched back to the left tank. After a few long seconds the thirsty lifeless engine got a gulp of needed fuel and was running again.

What I didn't know at that moment was that as I had planned this flight, I had remembered the 2.6 hours we had flown on our last flight and accounted for the twenty minutes previous to refueling. Therein was the fallacy. I mistakenly believed that we had used 2.3 hours of fuel since our last refueling, rather than 2.6.

The thirty minutes of fuel I believed we had in our tank was actually ten.

I had no idea why or how much time we had. Sue and I sat in silence, communing with God from the depth of our souls. We knew that with each minute that went by, we were one minute closer to our unknown destiny. Yet our uneasiness was overshadowed by a peace -- a peace that passeth all understanding. As always we felt His awesome presence surrounding us.

I looked at the blackness below us and the lights of Clinton in the distance. I knew much of this part of Missouri was covered in trees and lakes. There would be no way to know what was in the pitch dark below, until it was illuminated by our landing light moments before our arrival at ground zero – and by then too late to change course.

I could see the lights of cars on Highway 7 coming out of the city and noticed they all seemed to be traveling eastward, as if the town was being evacuated for the night. I figured that if we flew along the highway, I might just find a possible landing spot.

Landing westbound would put me on a collision course with the traffic so it would be necessary to turn eastbound to blend in with the traffic -- if we made it that far.

Still more than a mile from the highway, the inevitable happened. We once again encountered the sounds of silence -- the whoosh of the slipstream as our helpless craft sped towards the unknown.

This time I knew our power would not return. I lowered the nose to keep the airspeed at eighty miles per hour. Foot by foot, our altitude was disappearing. For just a moment I thought back to my last practice emergency landing with an instructor some four months ago. The plane had come down much more slowly than I anticipated and I had a hard time not over shooting the chosen field. Tonight I was thankful for the excellent glide characteristics of this Cherokee.

The highway curved to the south and revealed nothing but southbound traffic. Approaching the curve, I banked to the south. We were committed to land. There could be no "go around" or "do over". I didn't dwell on it, but in the back of my mind I knew that narrow, rural highways can be a dangerous snare of trees, power lines, bridges, signs, mailboxes and fences.

That is when everything became instinctive, as if someone else was flying the plane. I concentrated on the airspeed. Our landing light soon revealed the bright reflection of newly painted stripes on our makeshift runway. The surface ran slightly uphill causing me to over-flare just a bit. The stall warning light flashed out a bright warning in the dark cockpit and I lowered the nose just a bit for a smooth touchdown.

As we coasted down the center of Highway 7, watching for signs and mailboxes, I saw a set of power lines pass overhead. We had threaded the needle perfectly, praise God.

We slowed to a stop and I followed Sue out the door on my shaking legs as a car pulled up behind us. The driver assisted us in pushing the plane into a driveway as our special angels from the Missouri Highway Patrol quickly arrived to assist us.

We were taken the three miles to the airport to fetch a can of gas. A mile of highway was then inspected for obstructions and blocked off for our takeoff.

We started up and turned on the landing light that had faithfully shown us our improvised runway. Seconds later it burned out. Let's see now, wasn't it about miracle number twenty-five that it had lasted that long?

This story could have had a thousand tragic endings. One more circle at the first airport and we'd have not made it to the highway, only to land in trees or the unseen lake we learned we had just passed over. Opposite-direction traffic on the highway could have forced us to land in dark unknown terrain. A power line or bridge could have destroyed our airplane.

Yet, against all odds, we walked away with not a scratch on us or the airplane. Some may dare to call it luck. I cannot.

We are amazed beyond belief at the number of details He attended to throughout this ordeal, not only in our lives, but the lives of those surrounding us. While we sat working on the landing light, a drunk driver came upon our Highway Patrol roadblock and was taken off the road. If only he knew the intricate chain of the events that may have saved his life and the lives of others.

We thank a personal, caring God. There's no question that He abundantly exceeded all that we could have asked or thought.

Gene S.

Bethalto, IL