Recently, I found myself scrolling through my daily news feed when something really caught my eye. Faced with an engine problem at 5,500 feet, a new pilot performed a near-perfect landing on a busy highway curve. It’s a great example of what you can achieve when you use your training to handle an emergency.
On July 3, Vincent Fraser took his 1967 Aero Commander 100 for a flight above the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina, reports the Washington Post. Fraser, a fresh pilot with about 100 hours in his logbook, was taking his father-in-law for a ride above the mountains when every pilot’s nightmare became reality. At about 5,500 feet above ground level, the Aero Commander’s Lycoming O-320 flat four piston engine sputtered to a stop.
As the Post writes, Fraser is a lifelong aviation enthusiast and he originally wanted to be a fighter pilot. In the Marines, he maintained fighter armaments before his honorable discharge in 2015. Fraser then became a flight attendant. Along the way, he was learning how to fly and earned his license in just October 2021. He’s on his way to building hours with a goal to one day become a commercial pilot. And now, he has a textbook emergency landing to add to his experience.
Given the location and altitude of the aircraft when the engine stopped, Fraser had limited options. Gliding to an airport was out of the cards. Instead, he would have to perform a forced landing among thick forest cover and other obstacles. Thankfully, Fraser had a good idea of what to do.
When you learn how to fly, something that your flight instructor will constantly drill into your head is how to react when the plane does the unexpected. Along with learning how to recover from stalls you’ll also learn what to do when the engine fails. In my own training, my instructor reminds me to “Aviate, Navigate, Communicate.” You first fly the plane. This involves stabilizing it if necessary then setting it up for its best glide. When everything is under control you navigate, and then you let other pilots (and controllers, if applicable) what’s going on.
And even when the aircraft is operating nominally, you want to be scanning your surroundings for possible places to land, just in case the worst were to happen.
For Fraser, as the Post reports, he was able to get the engine to briefly run again, but it died again. He searched for places to perform a forced landing. There were roads, but they were covered by trees. There was a bridge, but it was short and busy with traffic. With a dropping altimeter and seemingly nowhere to land, the two prepared for a water ditching in the river below the aforementioned bridge.
Ditching sounds like something that would put you into a plane-shaped coffin. As it is, crashing a car into a body of water can kill you very quickly. Statistically, the ditching survival rate for general aviation is about 90 percent. Still, I can’t blame Fraser for continuing to look for other options.
And thankfully, he found one. Fraser came about U.S. Highway 74, a four-lane highway with a center turn lane. As far as makeshift runways go, that’s about as good as it gets.
Unfortunately, not only was the highway curvy, but obstacles included power lines and cars running in all lanes. Despite that, he executed a textbook landing. The Aero Commander dodged power lines and even passed traffic on the way to the pavement. Perhaps most amazing to me is the fact that Fraser put it down in the middle of a curve while following it around. Pilots aren’t taught to land like that, yet he nailed it.
Videos of Fraser’s incredible landing have gone viral on Facebook, TikTok, as well as in national news. I’ve seen a number of commenters on those videos say that this landing was actually by the highway’s design. You’ve probably heard that for every five miles there must be one mile for a plane to land on or perhaps a variation where it’s one mile for every ten miles. The U.S. Department of Transportation says that such is a myth, and there is no law or policy that says that roads are designed to be makeshift runways.
And if you think about it, the premise doesn’t make sense, anyway. Highways that go through cities have stretches longer than five miles without a mile-long straight. And highways are cluttered with all kinds of obstacles from power lines to lighting, bridges, signage, and barriers. Oh, and the cars driving down them.
Still, while highways may not be designed to be makeshift runways, they can be used as runways if a pilot must. In Fraser’s case, it resulted in a safe landing. The problem with Fraser’s plane was reportedly related to fuel flow from a wing tank. When that problem was fixed, police closed the road long enough for him to get his plane back into the sky.
In a statement obtained by CNN Travel, Fraser noted that the plane was safe and he had the training, but that takeoff was plenty terrifying:
“I went back to when I was in the Marine Corps and made it my mission to get off that mountain. And so you know, I knew the plane was safe, I knew the plane has been checked out, I knew I had the training,” Fraser said. But his nerves were raw.“I honestly just wanted to turn it off, get out, throw up. You just can’t believe this is actually happening.”
In the end, this is a fantastic example of how to handle an emergency in a plane. It’s easy to panic, but if you follow your training you can turn a nightmare into something that you’ll walk away from. This applies to driving, too, regardless if your preferred flavor is 18, 10, six, four, three, two or even one wheel. And perhaps it can even be used to teach others.
I reached out to Fraser for comment and other thoughts on his story, and will update when I hear back.