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.
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.
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.