Landing on I-80

In 1986, shortly after our marriage, Diane and I began making cross-country flights in our C-182 to attend the annual summer reunion of University of Wisconsin classmates. These flights had always been pleasant and uneventful.

In 2006, on the second leg of our trip from our home field in Palo Alto, California to Waukesha County Airport in Wisconsin, the engine began to sputter. We were 12 miles west of our planned stop of Rawlins, Wyoming.

We both had GPS receivers on our yokes, so I asked Diane to locate I-80, and she quickly responded it was nearby and to our right. I headed for I-80 as I checked instruments and controls inside the cockpit. When the engine sputtered again, I told Diane we might be landing on the freeway and should snug up our harnesses.

Then, the engine quit.

182 down
Down safely in the median of I-80.

I chose a spot between two groups of vehicles traveling on I-80 and set up for a landing. When the main gear touched the pavement, the slight impact apparently loosened something in the fuel line, and the engine came back to life. Gaining on the cars in front, we quickly reached flying speed and took off. We had climbed to about 500 feet, steering to the right of the highway, when the engine quit again.

This time there was no clear space in which to land, so I banked to the left and landed on the median in the midst of sagebrush. The 182 traveled down to the center of the median and up the other side before stopping. Diane and I looked at each other, saw that we both were okay, then looked out the left window to find faces peering in at us. These were the motorists driving along the highway behind us when we landed, who had stopped to offer assistance.

While I did a walk-around, Diane called 911 and the FBO at Rawlins. The only damage appeared to be some tearing of the fiberglass landing gear fairings from the sagebrush. A fuel check showed 20 gallons in the tanks.

Wyoming State Troopers began to arrive just as Dave, an A&P mechanic from France Flying Service, drove up. The lieutenant said it might be necessary to dismantle the plane and truck it to the airport for repairs. Just then, Dave walked over, reported that he had cleared out some clogging in the fuel line, and wanted to try starting the engine. With my okay, Dave soon had it started and running smoothly.

By the way, while we were waiting for Dave to get some special tools, a highway patrolman asked if we would stand in front of 19N and have our picture taken with another Wyoming Highway Patrol (WHP) officer who would look like he was giving me a ticket.

On the front page of the 2006 Fall Issue of the WYOMING STATE TROOPER is a photo of 19N in the median strip with a WHP patrol car under one wing and the heading “THE PLANE TRUTH.” On the inside rear cover we are seen at the nose of 19N with an officer about to hand me a ticket. This time the caption was “Sir, I’ve stopped you for speeding 130 in a 75 and running six stop signs.” We have been receiving succeeding issues every year.

Trooper with 182
"Sir, I've stopped you for speeding 130 in a 75 and running six stop signs."

When I was ready to take off, the lieutenant notified me that he would halt the westbound traffic. Roger, one of the motorists who had stopped to help, was a C-182 pilot from Alaska. He offered to fly with me to Rawlins while Diane rode with his mother to the airport in their car. Roger and I climbed in the 182, taxied to the eastbound lane, got an okay from the lieutenant, and took off.

A few minutes after landing at Rawlins, Roger’s mother showed up with Diane. After expressing our gratitude to all, we drove the airport courtesy car into town, found pleasant lodging, and relaxed over a nice meal before turning in for the night.

The next day, July 4th, Dave reported our C-182 to be totally airworthy, and we continued on to Wisconsin. In the motel room that morning, I had turned on the TV. Channel KCWY 13 just happened to be telling their listeners about “a small airplane made an emergency landing Monday on the interstate.” 19N was also shown in the median strip on the front page of the Rawlins DAILY TIMES.

Non-aviation people who hear this story always ask, “Weren’t you frightened?” My response is there is no time for fear, but an instinctive reliance upon the training, experience, and years of flying which give us the judgment necessary to produce the best possible outcome in an emergency.

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21 Comments

  • BOB:

    THE REASON YOU TWO ARE STILL ALIVE IS YOU DIDN’T PANIC!YOU FLEW THE AIRPLANE IN A PROFESSIONAL MANNER.
    LETS HOPE YOU ALWAYS MAINTAIN THIS PAASUAVE.
    I WONDER IF HIGHWAY PATROL WOULD BE AS ACCOMODATING TODAY AS YOUR PATROLMAN WAS THEN?

    BOB

  • Bob,

    An engine failure is a pilot’s worst nightmare. However, given the circumstances, this event had the best possible outcome. All persons on board survived, the aeroplane was kept serviceable, and there were no casualties to anyone on the ground. Given you landed on a highway, that’s pretty good! I agree with Bob Speer. A cool, calm and collected response meant you walked away from this one.

    Happy landings,

    Drew

  • Good job, Bob and Diane! Your handling of a challenging situation certainly points up the importance of remaining calm and relying on our training to have it turn out well.

    Nancy Warren

  • Good job Bob.It has been my experience that in most
    tense situations in life it is always good to listen to your wife. Eh Diane? A good second dickie can be
    invaluable. Never leave home without her! After surviving WW11 as aircrew,I got my private licence in
    1948. Have had 2 engine falures. The first one I had my girl aboard(now my wife of 61 years).On landing she said,”did that bad language really help?” Wish she could still come with me now in the old Mooney 20C

  • Great example of “keeping the blue side up”.

    The safe conclusion proves you know the two most important things about flying, i.e.,
    “the next two things”. Remembering this fact in all flight phases results in safe and successful flight outcomes; especially, as demonstrated in your
    unexpected highway landing.

  • Obviously a very good outcome from a tough situation. Did you ever consider landing on the median as a primary option- thereby minimizing the risk to people on the highway? The outcome of a multi vehicle vs aircraft collision would undoubtably have resulted in a different tale!

    • Tony – after flying in northern Canada and Alaska, where roads are widened every so many miles so they can be used for aircraft landings, also knowing that medians are sometimes rocky in places, if there is sufficient space between two groups of cars, I would do the pavement landing again if needed. Bob

  • When the engine fired up after landing the first time, why didn’t you reduce the throttle to idle and start applying the brakes? Wasn’t it risky and unnecessary to get airborne again with an iffy engine?

    • John – the throttle was at idle when I landed but I did not want to risk a pile-up of cars and trucks behind me, not having a rear view mirror to see what was happening in the rear. Plus, there is no abundance of time to run multiple choices through one’s brain in this kind of circumstance. Bob

  • On the emergency glide list in my POH (Beech C23) it says to shut off mags, fuel, master etc. This would prevent the engine starting again by accident.

    But, I have lost my single engine at 4,000 feet and glided to a good landing in a little field. (Fuel problem).

    What they DON’T tell you anywhere is what to say on the radio during the final few minutes. I chose to give position reports (west of river, north of school buses, south of golf course). But I was on the Tower freqency and couldn’t think of any other “final words”.

    • The C-172 manual lists Master OFF in forced landings with and without power but only Mixture to idle CUT OFF in a forced landing without power.
      You clearly had power, in fact after the first touchdown you had full power. I realize you were in a 182 but is not the checklist about the same and if so, you certainly followed it.

  • Landing on a highway, fitting in between
    vehicles, is often a reasonably viable option in a light aircraft as relative speeds are close, and there is usually a median strip as a last minite detour.
    Taking off again, quite a different story…..

    • NOVEMBER 10, 2011 AT 9:56 PM
      Landing on a highway, fitting in between
      vehicles, is often a reasonably viable option in a light aircraft as relative speeds are close, and there is usually a median strip as a last minite detour.
      Taking off again, quite a different story…..

  • I am sure there is a lawyer out there with an opinion on this and we would like to hear it. I remember once reading that if you do harm to people or property when landing on a road, you are in real legal jeopardy because you transferred the risk of flying to innocent others. If you have ever landed on a two-lane road you know how narrow it looks and how few options there would be if a car showed up.

  • Landing on a freeway is a perfect solution for those of us needing to land “off airport.”

    I have never had to do this proceedure…but I have a dear friend who was the chief Hiway Patrol officer in a norther california district that told me of many…and I mean many small airplanes that had landed in his juristiction over the preceeding 20 years… I, as well as most of us has visualized landing on a freeway….. it is a perfect situation… we hover over the freeway at 80 knots and the cars, being very curious, stay back…done!

  • Nicely done!
    The median is not always a good option. I’ve seen several places along I-5 in Oregon where it is so soft that a 4WD cannot make it across without sinking to its axles (as evidenced by someone trying it). A spot like that would probably result in a harsh nose over if used for landing. To me a freeway would look pretty good, and a freeway with an exit ramp would be downright inviting.

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