This New Pilot’s Incredible Highway Landing Is A Perfect Lesson In Handling Emergencies

Makeshift Runway

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.

Aerocommander
Aero Commander 100 similar to the one involved. Credit: Robert Frola

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.

Faa
FAA

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.

Landed
Vincent Fraser via YouTube

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.

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32 Responses

  1. My grammar Nazi nerves are tingling… Was “out of the cards” supposed to be “out of the question” or “off the cards”. If you call artistic license I can deal with that. 🙂

    1. Except that’s not even a grammar problem. It’s almost a non sequitur. I think it’s really a portmanteau of a couple of phrases that mean the same thing.

      I am actively trying to kill my “grammar nazi” since it detracts from my enjoyment of a mildly interesting story on the interwebs. I have a long way to go. I’ll keep trying.

      Language is fluid and it always has been. Not many people speak Latin anymore.

  2. ” he originally wanted to be a fighter pilot. In the Marines, he maintained fighter armaments”

    Aaaand that’s why I didn’t go down that path in life.

    *joins the Air Force*
    “I want to fly planes!”
    “You get a wrench, go make sure those bombs don’t blow up”
    “yes sir” 🙁

    1. Yeah, that one white CUV (BMW?) didn’t even yield the fast lane after the plane had touched-down. Were they even looking up? Do they know that planes can swerve on the crowned road and that they are highly flammable?

    2. If I had to make a guess, the ones coming toward it were probably just hoping to beat it. With the engine off I’d assume the plane would be comparatively silent. So for the ones moving in the same direction, I think it’s reasonable to expect they wouldn’t know the plane was there until it was right on top of them.

  3. I’m nervous enough taking an old vehicle on a long road trip for fear of something breaking down in a bad spot.
    I can’t imagine cruising the sky’s in something from 1967 but a lot of old planes are still flying around up there.
    “Aviate, Navigate, Communicate.”
    More like

    Avert, Evacuate, Communicate.
    (my eyes) (my bowels) (with god)

    I only go up in small old planes if I’m wearing a parachute and planning to jump out of them.

    1. Unlike Cousin Bubba’s 1967 F100, that airplane has to get a thorough inspection at regular intervals. It needs documented periodic maintenance as well to stay airworthy. So while it’s old it’s probably in pretty good shape.

  4. Dang, fixed it on the spot and took off. I sort of assumed in a situation like that the plane would have to be hauled off and thoroughly inspected prior to flying again.

    I mean, I have had plenty of situations where my car breaks and I fix then go for a test drive, but if something fails I just coast to the shoulder, not glide and hope to find a runway.

  5. If you are going to land a plane on a freeway, Washington State is the place to do it. A former boss of mine had a catastrophic engine failure in a small plane and landed on a freeway there and actually ran into the back of a car. But, because of the influence of Boeing, the state’s laws strongly favor planes in such cases.

    1. It’s because BMW turn signals are much like VW diesels. There’s a chip that makes them turn on for federalizing and annual inspections, but the lights don’t actually work in daily driving. True story.

  6. Good on him for having an emergency checklist and following it. No repeated attempts to start the engine while losing altitude. Good orienting to his surroundings to find the best place to land. And good for keeping his cool enough to coordinate rudder and aileron to keep the plane level through the turn.

    The cops letting the mechanics do a literal roadside fix and fly it out is a wonderful ending for a story that could have ended poorly.

  7. I live near a small airport and once I saw a police car using a tow strap to tow a small aircraft back to the airport. I’d have loved to know the story.

    But wow, that pilot was cool as ice. Amazing! Reminds me of Captain Sully Sullenberger who landed his A320 in the Hudson River and saved 155 lives.

  8. The pilot screwed up. He was rerouted due to weather, wanted to impress the relatives on a second leg joyride, forgot to get fuel, and ran out. They put five gallons in, and off he flew to a nearby airport.
    There was no engine trouble other than fuel starvation. The FAA is reviewing the incident.

  9. That curve landing was cool.I cant believe he was worried about taking off again though.It was a walk in the park!
    The landing was FAR more dangerous.

    A theoretical question: What if the white car was traveling slightly faster,such that he would land right on it…. what would be the best option?
    Jinking sideways to another lane would still have your wing landing on the car, right?

  10. This is the sort of thing that scares me about flying, not the height. The way being in the air makes any minor problem a major emergency, immediately. That and, since I’m not a pilot, the complete lack of control.

    I don’t like being a passenger with an unfamiliar driver and in that situation it’s theoretically possible for me to drive the car instead of them. It’s so much worse when any minor error or failure can kill you and you, personally, can do absolutely nothing about it but pray.

    At least bouncing around like a billiard ball in a chain reaction wreck on the interstate I have a steering wheel and pedals to give me the illusion of control even if I’m as much at the mercy of physics as any aircraft. And yes I know it’s statistically much safer, I never said any of this was entirely rational.

    I kind of feel the same way about water, really. Why would I immerse myself in a fluid that I not only can’t breathe but if I happen to take it in by accident is difficult to clear from the lungs without assistance? For some reason I sink like a rock in water so even though I can mechanically swim I use a ton of energy just staying afloat and tire out really quickly. So I wear a life vest on any boat no matter how small.

    1. True. Though can be used as needed, that was not the initial design.

      I can imagine the distracted driver texting then like “There is a plane in the road, lol”

      This is the pilot I want to be with. Sure it was brown alert, but he handled it well. I am sure a few minutes after landing he was shaking like a leaf.

      This being NC, I am sure a group of friendly Redneck arrived in their truck and pulled him off. That is why I like that part of country. Y’all need help? Let me get the boys over there.

    2. Although some countries *do* have stretches of road that are designed to be quickly convertible into runways. It’s usually countries that anticipate their airfields being targeted if they were invaded.
      Also, the US Air Force has been doing some training using US roads as air strips in the last couple of years.

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