Boise & Garden City

How do you land a plane on the freeway? Pilot displayed skill under pressure

When pilot Jon M. Brinkerhoff heard the engine of his 1970 Cessna 210 Centurion sputter before sunup on Tuesday, he didn’t have a lot of time to react.

Hauling a load of freight from Spokane for Boise-based SP Aircraft, Brinkerhoff had spent the previous 14 minutes descending from a cruising altitude of 11,300 feet down to 3,300 feet, according to Flightaware.com, a plane-tracking service. He had received clearance to land and was heading east at a speed of 183 mph toward Runway 10-Left at the Boise Airport.

“7-3-Mike, engine failure,” Brinkerhoff told an air traffic controller at 6:59 a.m., using the last two numbers and the letter “M” from the plane’s tail registration. “Engine failure for 7-3-Mike. Mayday, mayday.”

Brinkerhoff, 30, an experienced commercial pilot and flight instructor, decided his best option was to land the single-engine plane on Interstate 84, about a mile and a half west of the airport.

Without power, Brinkerhoff was unable to bring the landing gear down into position. He force-landed the plane, at that point flying without lights, in the two far right lanes on the eastbound side of the freeway, just west of the Orchard Street exit.

Cars and trucks crowding the freeway during the morning commute apparently got over to give Brinkerhoff a place to land, although those witnesses were long gone by the time the Idaho State Police responded to the scene and began interviewing people.

The plane sustained damage but remained intact as it skidded to a stop on the pavement. Brinkerhoff was not injured.

FUEL TANK RAN DRY

It turned out Brinkerhoff, who was not made available by SP Aircraft for an interview, had failed to switch to an auxiliary fuel tank and the tank in use went dry. Switching tanks is done by the flip of a switch, and a dashboard gauge would have warned of the problem.

Jim Hudson, a flight instructor from Boise who works out of the Nampa Airport, said he recommends switching tanks every 30 minutes or so to keep the systems active and not rely on one tank.

“That’s something that you do in-flight, you switch tanks every so often,” Hudson said. “You shouldn’t ever let one tank run totally dry, because then you might pick up some sediment or debris (from the tank). The engine might not start again, even though it’s still windmilling.”

PILOTS TAUGHT TO HAVE EMERGENCY CHECKLIST

Hudson, who teaches basic flying skills and those needed for flying in and out of remote backcountry landing strips, encourages his students to have a mental checklist if something goes wrong in the air. He advises them to determine the best gliding speed to control the aircraft without allowing it to stall and drop from the air. Then, he says, look for a place to land and troubleshoot the problem to see if the engine can be restarted.

Some problems are caused by simple mistakes. For example, the throttle control on most small planes is a knob that pushes in and out. Nearby is a similar controller used to adjust the mixture of fuel to air going to the engine. Pulling that controller all the way out shuts the fuel off, Hudson said.

“Those troubleshooting procedures are kind of ingrained in pilots. You should always run a few checks to see if you can get your engine going again,” Hudson said.

Another flight instructor, Kurt Becker, of Melba, said pilots are taught to aviate (maintain control of the aircraft), navigate (know where you are and where you intend to go) and communicate (let someone know your plans and needs). That’s especially important when faced with an air emergency.

Becker said Brinkerhoff did a good job of maintaining airspeed, and therefore control of his plane, after losing power.

“You’ve got to keep your airspeed. If you don’t keep your airspeed, you’re going to stall and kill yourself,” Becker said.

Becker said he had an engine quit while flying near Denali National Park in Alaska in 2012. He switched fuel tanks, and within just a few seconds, the engine started again. It turned out a malfunctioning fuel boost pump was responsible for the problem, he said.

FAA STRESSES EMERGENCY PREPAREDNESS

The Federal Aviation Administration publishes a book that includes a chapter on emergency procedures. The key to successful management of an emergency situation is a “thorough familiarity with, and adherence to, the procedures” developed by the airplane manufacturer and contained in the plane’s flight manual and pilot’s operating handbook, the FAA said.

Indecision or delay in accepting that an emergency exists and requires immediate action can hamper a pilot’s ability to land safely, according to the FAA manual.

“An unconscious desire to delay the dreaded moment may lead to such errors as: failure to lower the nose to maintain flying speed, delay in the selection of the most suitable landing area within reach, and indecision in general. Desperate attempts to correct whatever went wrong, at the expense of airplane control, fall into the same category,” the manual says.

Fear of dying can also hamper a pilot’s ability to deal with a crisis. The FAA says survival records favor pilots who maintain their composure and know how to apply emergency procedures developed through the years.

“The success of an emergency landing is as much a matter of the mind as of skills,” the FAA manual says.

Hudson and Becker praised Brinkerhoff for keeping his composure and landing his plane safely.

“Given his situation — even though he may have caused it — he did a good job in getting it down,” Hudson said. “I’ve never had it happen to myself, but I hope I’ll do the right thing, relying on my training and experience.”

The crash remains under investigation by the FAA.

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