The weather seemed to be ideal and the morning calm as my wife, Kim, and I prepared to fly a Cessna 172 to visit our son Cole, his wife, Haley, and newborn grandson, Colt, in Cadillac, Michigan, on the morning of October 8. We were looking forward to the flight and we were especially excited for the opportunity to see Colt.
I updated the briefing that I’d prepared the night before and filed my flight plan prior to leaving our home in Sterling Heights, Michigan, about 7:30am. We headed out for the 15-mile drive to Detroit City Airport (DET). The airport is home to the Tuskegee Airmen Museum Flight School and Club, where I am a member.
I had just over 200 hours of flight time in the Cessna 172 I was flying that day, and upon arriving at the airport, I confirmed the airplane had recently received its 100 hour inspection. After completing the pre-flight inspection, we were ready to take off on what would turn out to be a very memorable adventure.
Kim and I departed DET at 8:48am for what should have been a 90-minute flight to our destination, the Wexford County Airport, in Cadillac (CAD). We obtained flight following about five miles north of DET and cloud bases in the Detroit area were around 4200 ft. AGL. We maintained an altitude of 3500 ft. MSL until we were able to climb to 4500 ft. just north of Flint.
It was a beautiful fall morning and Kim enjoyed capturing the vibrant northern Michigan colors in photos along the way. All was going well and the gauges were in the green the entire flight; there was no indication of any approaching engine trouble. As is customary, we noted airports along the route should we have a need to divert for any reason.
Kim, who is not a pilot, has taken great interest assisting me with checklists and noting general information including heading, altitude, and any course deviations. About 17 miles south of CAD, I obtained the ATIS and confirmed the winds were from 260° at 13 knots, gusting to 17 knots. The visibility was 10 statute miles and we were at about 4000 ft. preparing for decent and landing on Runway 25. At this time, the flight was normal and the weather conditions were favorable.
We were 15 miles southeast of CAD when the airplane suddenly started shaking violently and losing power. I was startled by the split-second intensity of the shaking, thinking that perhaps I encountered a large bird strike or there was a problem with the propeller. I immediately began executing my emergency checklist, and maintained a best glide speed of approximately 65 knots, thinking I still had a chance of making CAD.
After noting a decline in altitude and a windmill farm that was clearly going to be a problem, I started diverting to the west, aware that there was ample open space. All the gauges remained in the green, but the engine was losing power and we were descending approximately 300 feet per minute (FPM). I thought initially that we had encountered carburetor ice, so I pulled carb heat on and made sure there was nothing unusual like the primer vibrating loose. I continued with the checklist but there was nothing out of the ordinary so we proceeded further toward the open space, confirming the best field to land in.
Since I was in communication with ATC with flight following, I advised Minneapolis Center of the engine trouble and notified them that we were likely going to make an emergency landing. Minneapolis then advised me to turn to a heading of 180 and proceed to Evart Municipal Airport (9c8), about equal distance from CAD. I was hoping and praying that carb heat would resolve the problem and we could continue on to our destination. Unfortunately, the problem persisted and the odds of potential disaster were becoming more imminent with each passing minute. At this point I was convinced there was no possible way we could make either airport. The emergency landing was the only option to avoid a catastrophe.
I continued to focus on getting the airplane aligned with the field we had selected to land in. I reported to Minneapolis Center that the diversion was not possible and that I was proceeding with the emergency landing. Our decent rate was about 500 FPM. Given the field’s elevation of 1300 and our altitude of 2400, I only had about two minutes before touchdown.
I did the best I could to maintain a glide speed of 65 knots and lined up with the field on a downwind. We turned base and applied 20 degrees of flaps, knowing we were a little fast. Unfortunately, we had to clear a large cluster of trees and the natural tendency was to pull back on the yoke, pitching up. This resulted in the airplane slowing to the point of the stall warning sounding. I quickly corrected by pitching the nose down and thankfully by then we were clear of the trees. I turned final with a heading suitable for winds out of the west and applied the remaining flaps.
On final, I was overcome with a sense of calmness and relief, at this point knowing there was no question I could make the landing with little or no trouble. The alfalfa field was a good choice because the growth was low and not very dense. It was eerily quiet as we approached touchdown and we made a soft field landing with the main wheels touching down first and the nose wheel about 30 feet later (I measured that after the fact by the tire marks in the field). We had plenty of distance for roll-out stopping about 100 feet short of a road, which made the airplane extraction much easier. After confirming Kim was OK, I completed the shutdown procedure.
Kim and I were not injured (surprisingly, it was one of my best soft field landings) and there was no damage to the airplane. The root cause was determined to be a blown exhaust valve, which subsequently destroyed the piston and cylinder.
An Eyewitness Perspective – property owner Laurie VanPolen
On October 8th, I was headed home after a morning football game when I saw a small plane flying quite low. I kept my eye on the plane, thinking it’s the wrong time of year to be spraying crops and we don’t spray our fields by plane. Color tour maybe?
They continued to get closer and closer to the tree tops. That’s when I realized they were in trouble. I sped past my house as I watched the plane going down. My last vision of the plane was seeing it head towards our center pivot (irrigation system). They went down quickly and out of my view behind a hill. I said a prayer asking for their protection, fearing I would find the plane tangled in our center pivot.
As I drove through the field, I could not find the plane. Crazy, I thought. There’s no way I imagined this. And the only thing I had been drinking that morning was coffee! I continued to drive around the edge of our field. Finally, at the other side of the field, down the hill, I spotted the plane. Relief! The plane was upright.
I rushed over to check on the occupants. They were shaken up, but so very grateful to be safe! I had an extra coat and blanket in my car, as I had just returned from my grandson’s football game. I messaged my son to bring more coats and blankets.
Our son, Mike, and his family rushed out to make sure everyone was safe. Our grandkids thought it was cool to have a plane in our field. Our neighbors had also witnessed the plane go down, so Nate came out to make sure everyone was safe. He ran home, returning with warm coats, hats, and mittens, which he offered to Mark and Kim.
The Vanderpools were so grateful and thankful that they had an alfalfa field to make their emergency landing in, but were so concerned about damaging our crops. I assured them we were more concerned about their safety. Mark did an amazing job bringing the plane down safely, with the only sign of this event being tire tracks from the landing. I was in awe of his calm demeanor after such an event. We will remember this day for a long time.
Finally we move on
I called my son Cole, who was waiting for us at CAD. Upon hearing my voice, he asked if we had landed. Relieved that I was alive to talk with him, I jokingly said we had landed, but unfortunately we were in the middle of a field. After realizing I was not joking, he raced to our location. I then called to cancel my flight plan and it was really strange reporting we had not made our destination and I was standing in the middle of a field.
Shortly after, Minneapolis Center called to confirm everything was OK. Osceola County Sheriff personnel arrived, but we did not need medical attention. Within an hour or so, I was contacted by representatives with the Grand Rapids Flight Standards District Office. We filed the necessary report over the phone and I was advised that we could proceed making arrangements to remove the airplane. After a couple of hours, as Kim and I sat in Cole’s car, I had a chance to reflect on this surreal experience. It was only then that I realized how fortunate we were to be on the right side of the story.
Lessons learned and gratitude
As our worst fear unfolded, my wife and I remained calm throughout the emergency and focused on executing the landing. The alternative was not a viable option. After we safely landed, my wife started crying and complimented me for a safe landing. It felt good hearing her words, but I fully understood the gravity of the situation. And while stunned over what had just happened, I was incredibly relieved we were safe. I immediately thought about Mario Accardo and Craig Pearson, the Certified Flight Instructors (CFIs) with whom I completed my flight training. Both emphasized the importance of being able to complete emergency landings and we practiced them extensively. Both are among a group of elite CFIs and I was blessed to be able to complete my training under their guidance.
With that training in mind, Kim and I are always searching for areas to make emergency landings, and while we never thought it would actually happen, picking out a site was more instinctual when the actual need arose. There is undoubtedly a difference between meeting minimum standards for flight training maneuvers to pass a test and being proficient. Both CFIs focused on the latter.
I was also grateful for the Minneapolis Center controller who helped guide me to a safe outcome. He was beyond professional and reflective of the extensive training required by the FAA for air traffic controllers to be able to perform flawlessly under pressure. In hindsight, I wish I was able to communicate more with the controller to ease his level of stress; however, after declaring the emergency I was laser-focused on the landing.
I am grateful for the rigorous ground training program offered by the Tuskegee Airmen Museum Flight Program. Their program is centered on teaching emerging young aviators the science of rocketry, drone, glider, and fixed wing certifications. I was lucky to be offered the chance to complete the training thanks to the program’s president, Dr. Brian Smith, and ground school instructor Fazal Kahn. Their ground and flight training is modeled on best practices in safe flight operations.
Finally, I am grateful for the FAA, who over the years has developed a training and licensing regimen that has become the gold standard worldwide, making aviation one of the safest modes of transportation. While we may question the need for government regulation, we should never question the need for comprehensive regulations in aviation—centered entirely on safety.
I am telling this story for a few reasons. First, it is important that students, and even seasoned pilots, know to expect the unexpected. We hear about similar situations, most of which have happy endings, and a number that end tragically, and we think it we will never happen to us. But it can and does. Secondly, it is important for student pilots to insist that their CFIs practice emergency landings in such a manner as to not only pass their checkride, but to be proficient. I am sure many, if not most, CFIs practice this maneuver extensively with their students and I was fortunate that my emergency encounter was so close to my training.
While there is not much retrospectively that I would have done differently in this emergency, I have learned that perpetual training and practice will always be a part of my future pilot experience. Lastly, I am telling this story so our grandson, Colt, knows (when he is able to comprehend the situation) that we went “out of our way” to see him on that exciting and eventful morning which Kim and I will never forget!