This morning, some aviation news scrolled across my screen and made me blurt out “good job!” There’s another aircraft emergency landing in the news. This time, one carried out by an 18-year-old with a fresh pilot license. His name is Brock Peters, and he practiced what was drilled into him during his flight training: to get everyone on board the plane safe and sound on the ground. This amazing landing is something we could all use in our day, even if we ourselves never leave the ground.
The Flight Plan
On January 2, a 1979 Piper Warrior II PA-28-161 departed Apple Valley Airport in Apple Valley, California bound for Riverside Municipal Airport in Riverside, California. The pilot at the controls was 18-year-old Brock Peters, an aviation enthusiast who as CBS News reports, had obtained his pilot license just four months ago. Peters was flying his two cousins and grandmother on what was supposed to be a short and fun holiday flight.
It sounds like Peters loves flying for many of the same reasons many get into a pilot seat, including myself. Speaking to the Guardian, he said “I love the thrill of it. I love the speed. I love seeing things from the air. It’s a difference perspective.” The publication notes that Peters has been flying since 16 and that he’s currently in college. His goal is to become a commercial pilot. Indeed, there’s nothing quite like being up there and taking in what you could never see by staying on the ground. And the thrill of powered flight is unmatched even by driving a supercar or a motorcycle.
Peters explained what the January 2 flight was about, from the Guardian:
He said he had cousins visiting for the holidays from Colombia and Colorado, and their plan was to use a single-engine Piper PA-28 to complete a flight of about 60 miles from Apple Valley airport to Riverside airport, where they would have breakfast before flying back. It’s a trip he’s taken with family members multiple times before, he said. “We’ll go down for breakfast, have a quick meal and a nice flight and keep going with our day.”
By all accounts, this was supposed to be a normal, easy flight — and one that Peters had executed in past. However, this time would be different. About 20 minutes into the flight and over Cajon Pass between the San Bernardino Mountains the San Gabriel Mountains, Peters heard a boom that was followed immediately by a loss of power. It’s a situation that’s every pilot’s nightmare, but Peters remembered his training and sprung into action.
When you’re taught how to fly a plane, one thing that will get hammered into you is how to handle an emergency. You could have any number of emergencies in the sky from smoke in your cabin to electrical or control failures. And you will learn how to safely get a plane on the ground in the absence of thrust from your engine.
Something my Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) taught me before I even had five hours in my logbook is to always be looking for a potential place to land. Not only does it keep you alert–which can also help you find any birds or traffic in the sky that you might need to avoid, too–but it helps you have a game plan for when the worst happens. When you’re learning how to fly, your CFI will throw you right into simulated engine failures, often by just yanking out the power when you least expect it. Then, your task is to get the plane to the safest landing possible.
Part of that emergency landing procedure is pitching the plane so that its glide results in the greatest amount of range from your remaining altitude.
Glide the plane too fast or too slow and you risk bleeding off altitude that could have been used to get you to safety. At the same time, you should be looking for a place to put the plane down, or aiming for the target if you already found one. Of course, that landing spot should be as smooth and as free of obstacles as possible. This may not be a road, because roads often have dangers like infrastructure, poles, power lines, and cars. When your options are slim, you take the safest spot you can find.
From there, you’re flying the aircraft to that target and going through your checklist to see if perhaps the engine could be restarted. If you can, you’ll also be notifying someone on the ground of the situation, be it a tower or emergency services. As my CFI says, it’s Aviate, Navigate, and Communicate, in that order. This is an incredible workload when you’re just training, and at the back of your mind, you know that you still have an engine. It’s different when it’s real, where screwing up can mean the difference between life and death.
When this scenario became real for Peters, he leaned on his training to get that aircraft down. As he aviated his rental aircraft, he located a place to land, worked through the engine restart procedure, and attempted to alert the authorities. Talking with the Guardian, Peters noted that the aircraft was cruising at 5,500ft above sea level and over rocky terrain covered with trees. There were few options to get an aircraft down safely without injury, and not a lot of altitude to figure things out. Here’s what the Piper PA-28-161’s Pilot’s Operating Handbook says of a power off landing:
Left with few options, Peters pointed the aircraft towards Old Route 66. As the aircraft flew towards Peters’ landing spot in the road, he observed obstacles like a hill, a curve in the road, and power lines. There were two cars on the road. One saw the inbound aircraft and pulled over, while the other was far enough away not to be a problem. Talking to CBS News, Peters noted that his grandmother was crying in the back, but he had to tune her out and focus on getting everyone on the ground safely.
Despite the less-than-ideal situation, Peters’ training paid off and the plane made a safe landing on Cajon Boulevard in the San Bernardino National Forest. He wasn’t able to contact air traffic control but called 911. Firefighters came and helped Peters get the plane out of the road. Everyone onboard the plane escaped without injury. After the landing, Peters noted to the Guardian that he didn’t notice that there were also power lines crossing the road. He credits missing those lines to divine intervention, saying that lines must have been moved out his way.
Regardless of what happened with the power lines, Peters has shown off some incredible skill. In remembering his training and keeping calm, he is able to talk about this event today. He’s not the only pilot to have aced a landing like this. Last year, we wrote about a pilot facing a similar situation, and that pilot threaded the needle between power lines and landed on a curve. Not all pilots are this successful in getting a stricken aircraft on the ground.
This is also a good lesson to be had here for people who don’t even fly. If you drive a car or ride a motorcycle, it is a good idea to scan the world around you for dangers and perhaps have a way out should things go south. When I first got into the pilot seat of a Cessna 172, I noticed that some of the teachings of my instructor weren’t too different than a motorcycle safety course. Always be looking for an escape path.
At this time, Peters believes that an internal failure occurred in the Piper’s piston engine. The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating what caused the engine failure. As for Peters, this event didn’t ruin his joy of flight. He says he will take some days to decompress before getting right back into the sky again. Peters says that he’s even more encouraged now to become an airline pilot, and I wish him the best of luck.
(Top Screenshot: CBS Los Angeles)