- A small aircraft was forced to make an emergency landing on Interstate 40 in North Carolina on Saturday after experiencing engine trouble.
- Drivers made room for the approach and landing, with no injuries reported in the aircraft or on the ground.
- Pilots train for potential emergency landings, and highways are often preferable when an airport isn’t nearby since they’re paved.
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A remote stretch of Interstate 40 in rural North Carolina became a runway on Saturday evening when a light aircraft was forced to make an emergency landing on the busy highway while dodging passing cars, according to McDowell County Emergency Management.
Motorists had their eyes on the skies when what appeared to be a World War II-era Aeronca Chief piston aircraft steadily dropped, briefly swayed from side to side, and eventually touched down on the four-lane roadway. Local law enforcement officials reported numerous 911 calls were placed by witnesses on the ground claiming to have heard the aircraft experiencing engine issues just before the daring landing.
Dashboard camera video from a car below the aircraft, posted by the Charlotte Observer, recorded the final stages of landing. Traveling just slightly faster than the cars, the aircraft came into view and within seconds had its two main wheels on the pavement.
The Aeronca Chief’s tail-wheel configuration – where the nose is held in the air after landing until the rear wheel can rest on the surface – complicated the landing and the plane hit the side rail.
No injuries were reported, however, and the pilot walked out of the damaged aircraft unscathed.
Why landing on a highway is the last resort
Though the preference is always an airport, low-flying general aviation aircraft don’t always have enough time or altitude available to glide to the nearest runway during an engine failure. Pilots often have to make do with the nearest usable flat surface when catastrophe strikes.
From the first days of training, pilots learn to be on the constant lookout for a suitable landing spot, whether a field or a busy highway. “Pilots are constantly simulating emergency scenarios,” Andrew Treulich, an FAA-certified flight instructor, told Business Insider. “We train students for engine failures in multiple different phases of flight because it most often happens when you least expect it.”
Landing on a highway – while still dangerous given the hazards such as moving cars, signage, and overhead power wires – can often be preferable to landing in a field.
“A grass field is not guaranteed to be smooth and could contain ditches and other hazards that can cause damage to the aircraft or injury to the pilot,” Treulich said.
As long as the emergency situation warrants the highway landing, no laws are broken as the pilot is trying to protect life and property, according to Treulich, though care still needs to be taken to avoid injuring those on the ground below. General aviation aircraft are typically traveling at speeds similar to cars on an interstate and by flying low before landing, they can signal to drivers that they’d better clear a path.
It’s always a last resort in case of an engine failure – as pilots will attempt to restart the engine while navigating the emergency descent – but pilots are trained and ready to execute the scenario at a moment’s notice. Engine issues or failure can occur in any stage of flight, including in the seconds after the aircraft leaves the ground.
Air traffic control is often the last to know an emergency is occurring in general aviation aircraft flown by one pilot, as the priority is finding a place to land and configuring the aircraft to get the best ratio of speed and altitude loss. Pilots are taught to aviate, then navigate, then communicate. And once on the ground, they can figure out how to get their aircraft back to the airport.