Road Landings: Bring Beer

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Periodically, a story falls into your lap. This one fell 37 years ago, and I just discovered the relevance to today’s flying. Well, maybe.

Nov. 3, 1982, was a slow news day in Watsonville, California, when the local radio led with, “Local Man Lands Airplane on Freeway.” I was on my way to work as an air traffic controller at Monterey Peninsula Airport (MRY) but detoured to Watsonville Muni (WVI) to verify my suspicions that it was my friend, Jake, (not his real name) who’d made the freeway landing. It was. And to no one’s surprise.

Flash forward to a few days ago when I saw Paul Bertorelli’s video “How To Land On a Freeway.” While thoroughly enjoyable and informative, complete with high-end graphics, award-winning music score and live-action dashcam video, it missed—I felt—the human element. Or in this case, Jake.

Bertorelli made several excellent observations, with two that I caught while simultaneously watching another video about a cat chasing a Dorito tied to a string. Killer stuff. Anyhow, Paul convincingly argued that landing with traffic on a highway is generally preferable to smashing head-on into a Freightliner with the truck driver listening to Waylon Jennings and wouldn’t even notice your Cub splattered on the grill until she reached Amarillo by morning. Paul’s second point was that once the engine quits, the insurance company owns the airplane so be cool. Jake employed both philosophies when over the Santa Monica Mountains after dark, and his 150’s engine quit for a really non-unanticipated reason. He’d run out of gas.

NTSB records for the two-year period bracketing the crash date show that Cessna 150s crash a lot, many from running out of gas. So, we can’t really fault Jake for that, now can we? You decide: Jake left Watsonville bound for Santa Monica (SMO), 239 miles southeast. The 150 burns roughly 6.5 GPH; more in climb, less in descent, way less in Jake’s descent after he’d run the tanks dry.

Now, as Bertorelli noted, an emergency landing “sans” fuel usually mitigates any large-scale threat of a fireball evening-news arrival. Again, we can applaud Jake for planning to run the tanks dry before arrival. That 239-mile trip would take roughly 2:50, mas o menos, at 85 knots with a light headwind. (Yes, Cessna 150 owners all fly more efficiently, but these are rough estimates.) So, 2:50 at 6.5 GPH requires 19 gallons of fuel.

The C150 holds 26 gallons, of which 22.5 gallons are usable if you rock the wings and pinch the seat cushion into your butt. Jake only needed 19 plus three-ish gallons reserve (total 22), but the NTSB report states that the “aircraft … departed (WVI) with partially filled fuel tanks.” Aircraft will do that, often leaving an unsuspecting PIC confused when the engine quits, as it did for Jake at 6:50 p.m.

No problem. Jake didn’t have to sweat a post-accident fire, and insurance wasn’t an issue, because he probably didn’t have any. Likely, he didn’t own the airplane. It’s a tad vague who did or what the “loan” arrangement was. Not an issue here, because Jake glided with commendable skill toward the traffic along the well-lit (from zillions of cars) San Diego freeway (I-405, about the busiest stretch of freeway this side of the Jersey Turnpike).

Anticipating Paul Bertorelli’s 2019 advice to land with the traffic, Jake got with the flow, clipped a highway sign and settled ever so gently atop a Toyota (might’ve been a Datsun), driven by a woman who told reporters something like, “Suddenly, there was a thump, and a wheel (nose) was in my windshield.” Good so far, as Jake hoped the Toyota driver would gradually slow, so they could pull onto the shoulder like the finale in a Flying Clown Act with applause all ‘round.

But Jake’s luck expired. The driver, doing what most untrained drivers would do, hit the brakes, and the C150 did what unsecured roof cargo does when the vehicle stops—it slid onto the freeway, causing “substantial damage.”  No one hurt. Jake climbed from the airplane, introduced himself to the woman with tire tread marks on her Toyota’s hood and, being a gentleman, offered her a beer. No, really, he did. This was the 1980s. Things were different then.

For the air cadets in the audience, this was long ago, back before cellphones when some laws were advisory-only, and you often had to wait for things to happen and, maybe, even talk to strangers face-to-face. Scary, I realize.

Jake and the Toyota driver sat along the meridian enjoying an evening beer, until the police arrived and detained Jake for drunk flying with the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence. Subsequent investigation proved that he wasn’t drunk, hadn’t been drinking while flying or before but routinely traveled with a six-pack in case of emergencies. This qualified.

The NTSB found probable cause to be threefold:

1)   Fuel exhaustion. No argument there.

2)   Fuel consumption calculations—disregarded (by the) Pilot In Command.

3)   Preflight planning/preparation (was) inadequate (again, by the) Pilot In Command.

I think causes two and three are arguably the same thing, and it feels a bit like piling on. The guy ran out of gas, because he didn’t plan … anything, except he did remember to bring the beer. But was the accident his fault?

Had the Toyota driver not panicked—just saying—and kept pace with the decelerating airplane piggy-backed on her roof, this story could’ve had a happier ending. I really think they need to teach aircraft emergencies in Drivers Ed.