United Pilot Talks Down Plane After Losing Its Engine, Lands On Highway

On Friday just after 1 p.m. a flight instructor and their student in a Cessna 172 aircraft experienced a failure of their single engine over I-75 in Broward County, Florida. They couldn’t reach air traffic control on the radio, but a commercial pilot who heard their calls talked them down onto the freeway 12 miles west of U.S 27.

ABC News identifies the commercial pilot as working for American Airlines. And that makes sense since they’re near Miami, Bayesian reasoning would certainly support that. But the pilot of the private aircraft says it was a United captain who helped. Someone could pull the actual air traffic control recordings and identify the aircraft.

Richard Lee: “Do you think it’s a good idea to land on the highway?”

United pilot: “Yeah man, put it down wherever you got. You look good.”

Richard Lee: “Ok. F***, I’m so scared.”

United pilot: “You’re looking good man. Your approach looks good. I think you’re going to be fine. Did the engine just quit on you?”

Moments later you hear the small aircraft getting lower as Lee tries to eyeball landing right on I-75 near Mile Marker 37.

Richard Lee: “There are cars. There’s lots of cars out.”

United pilot: “Maintain a faster than normal air speed so you have something to work with to put it down between cars. Put it down in front of them and they’ll see you and stop.”

Richard Lee: “I’ll try, I’ll try.”

United pilot: “You’re looking good. Watch that truck.”

After some dipping and dodging, a big sigh of relief

Richard Lee: Yeah, I landed! I landed! I landed! We’re on the highway! We’re on the highway!

United pilot: Alright, good landing, sir. I’m going to tell Miami you’re OK.

Life imitates Airplane!…?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Stationed in Bismarck North Dakota Back in the early 80’s I had a Aur Force Captian, my XO tell me that, “any landing you can walk away from is a good landing”.

  2. Very cool! Looks like they identified the helpful pilot and updated their story at the link:

    “The other pilot nearby, identified as Marcus Summa from Skyline Aviation Academy in Fort Lauderdale, was heard giving advice and keeping them focused.”

  3. Why in the name of god would the flight instructor not take over as pilot flying??? I guess that’s a lesson the student will never forget. Jeez.

  4. The other instructor giving advice might have been a pilot for United but obviously wasn’t in an airliner. He did well calming the situation down. As a commercial glider pilot/private airplane/ground instructor I’m glad everything worked out but find it a bit odd that an instructor with an engine failure was bothering to try to reach air traffic control as they could do nothing for him.

    In such a situation you concentrate on finding a good landing spot–aviate–safely steer towards it–navigate–and last of all worry about telling anyone else–communicate. Depending on altitude you do typically have a few minutes to glide and pick a spot, but must concentrate on keeping the best airspeed to maximize that–you neither dive nor stretch a glide (and just before landing do a few other things like turn off the power and slightly open a door in case the plane flips or crumples).

    Anyway, a fair amount of flight training does deal with what to do in an engine failure, though I must admit that it wasn’t until I got into gliders that I really understood how to pick a good off airport site. There are common sense criteria for slope, surface, crops, winds, obstructions, etc. that you just learn to read as you fly along, keeping good sites in the back of your mind–at least when you are in a sailplane with no engine! And I have landed in fields twice, with both being complete non-issues. Clearly he did the best he could with what seems to have been his only choice, and the advice worked well. Hope I never have to try that.

  5. @drrichard that’s a good point. Maybe the journalist just added the part about “trying to reach” air traffic control. If they followed the checklist they should have broadcast a Mayday and left it at that. Maybe the other pilot heard their Mayday and offered to help.

  6. An instructor freaking out and needing another pilot to “talk him down” on a simple engine failure? Time for a career change there, Mr. Lee.

  7. Similar comment as others: the flights instructor would have *tons* of experience practicing off-field landings (or at least the glide and restart procedures, picking the spot, and doing the approach, unless the school has access to a proper grass field you would go around once on stabilized final). Airline pilots not so much. (except Gimli glider, Air Transat 236, miracle on Hudson, etc.)

    Good job by all involved!

  8. “Bayesian reasoning”

    Yet again, rather than engage in simple reportage, Gary has to flex.

  9. Drove past this plane sitting in the median last Friday about 3pm.

    Kind of cool to see a plane sitting on the side of the road. They were doing a hard bank during a lesson when the engine failed.

    If it were me, I would have gotten a mechanic there, got it running and take of on the highway. 😉

  10. (Writing as retired Navy Flight Surgeon and ER doc, Private Pilot/Instrument rating 30-35 years, Cessna 172 owner 20 years, ~ 2000 pilot hours.) My understanding after reading Gary’s post and several other sources is that Richard Lee was the CFI (Certified Flight Instructor) of the failed engine 172 and had the controls (was and/or had taken over flying the plane) at the time of emergency landing. Marcus Summa, the other CFI, who assisted, who is also a United or American pilot, was in a different small plane with a different student.

    With all due respect, Mr. Lee is an embarrassment to CFIs everywhere. Imagine if the roles had been reversed, it’s had to imagine Summa asking if the highway is a good place to land and exclaiming excitedly afterwards “Yeah, I landed! I landed! I landed!”. An experienced pilot, CFI or not, should be cool as a cucumber, like Sully and Skiles landing on (in) the Hudson, “cool, I just landed on a highway, I dare that (highway patrol) trooper to give a ticket”. Emotions rarely help in an emergency.

    Re “any landing you can walk away from is a good landing”, correct, a very old aviation expression. The corollary: any landing after which you can reuse the equipment (airplane) is a GREAT landing. No, the FAA will not allow the plane to get repaired and take-off from the highway, even if the problem was just running out of fuel.

    Re: “Aviate, navigate, communicate”, correct. Among the most basic lessons that’s taught to virtually all student pilots, military or civilian. However, part of “communicate”, time and workload allowing, is to communicate with ATC. Re “… a bit odd …with an engine failure bothering to try to reach air traffic control as they could do nothing for him” and “… should have broadcast a Mayday and left it at that”. ATC can do a lot and a Mayday call is often not replied to. ATC can provide weather, airport and air traffic information and vector/clear other airplanes away from the area. Most importantly, ATC can arrange for emergency response, firetrucks if at an airport, search and rescue if off-airport (why the pilot should say location), notify first responders how big a fire to expect (why the pilot should say amount of fuel onboard) and how many people to look for and/or rescue (why the pilot should say the number of souls onboard).

    When a 172 has an engine failure, depending on altitude, there may be (relatively) lots of time until landing, might be a minute or more per 1000 feet of altitude (a 172 usually flies between 1,000’ and 10,000’ AGL), might be 5 minutes of circling down if the failure occurred directly over an intended site of emergency landing, plenty of time for emergency landing checklists, engine restart procedures and possibly communicate (back and forth) with ATC. Many students are taught and some pilots frequently review, “engine out” procedures. Engine failure during takeoff roll, immediately after take-off with or without enough runway remaining to land on, engine failure in-flight. That’s one of the big differences between military and civilian flight training, military teaches and reviews that sort of thing obsessively, civilian more casually.

    It’s amazing to me that this CFI asked about landing on the highway (or wide unobstructed median) and that he displayed so much emotion, sounds like a minimally experienced CFI. No pilot plans to land on a highway but in an emergency “any port in a storm”. Hard to tell from Google maps, looks to be some fields in the area but could be swamps, the highway might have been the only choice. Regardless “Do you think it’s a good idea to land on the highway?” has to be one of the all time worst things a pilot has ever transmitted. Of course he’s going to think it, of course it IS or IS NOT a “good idea” depending on the alternatives. Why a CFI transmitted that is beyond me. He does have a slight accent which makes me wonder even more about his training and experience. (BTW, depending on several factors, a Cessna 172 lands at a groundspeed of ~55 MPH, so when landing on a highway (as Summa said) “… a faster than normal speed …” might allow to basically blend in with the traffic flow until the plane rolls to a stop. Once it’s determined that traffic volume and speed are likely to allow a safe landing, the bigger concerns are power lines, road signs and overpasses.)

    The most bothersome aspect of this, for all of us as “frequent flyers”, is that this CFI in a few short years might just be piloting the UA or AA or DL 737 or A320 in which we’re flying, he may just be building flight time in order to get a pilot job with an airline. Just last week I flew in my plane with a CFII (Certified Flight Instructor Instrument) for instrument currency and proficiency recurrent training. First time I flew with this CFII who teaches for the flight school at the airport where my plane is hangered. He’s had his pilot license for 2 years, trained at one of the well known “accelerated” flight schools, has 20% of my flight hours and when I asked, quickly said his goal was an airline job. As I wrote to my airplane partner afterwards, “he has all the book knowledge but not much experience”.

    The airlines used to get more pilots from the military, where flight training and experience is much more regimented and intense. Things have changed; commercial pilot salaries have decreased (making military salaries more competitive), more military pilots stay for a 20-30 year career, forced retirement age for commercial pilots (decreasing the number of years a military pilot can fly for an airline). Hopefully all pilots, especially commercial/airline pilots, would handle an emergency like Sully and Skiles but I still feel more warm and fuzzy when I know the pilot(s) of my UA/AA/DL 737 or 787 were trained (and flew for a while) for the US Navy (or Marine Corps or Coast Guard or even the Army). But not the Air Force, anyone can land on a 10,000’ runway! (Yes, kidding about that, just some interservice sibling rivalry.)

  11. all the second guessing and criticism and sniping is rediculous. Here is what the helper pilot actually said.

    “I don’t work for United or American. I own a small flight school in the area and was flying an IFR cross country to KEYW with a student when Miami reported an aircraft 11 o’clock 1000′ low squawking 7700 and asked us to make contact. The instructor reported I was an airline pilot because an AA pilot originally responded on Guard. He was already on approach to the highway when we spotted him and I just tried to offer some reassurance. Afterwards, I told my student “you don’t see that everyday” and we went about our business. I didn’t think much of it until Good Morning America called me a couple days ago. I did a zoom interview and there’s a clip out there floating around somewhere.

    The CFI did an awesome job landing the aircraft safely without injury or damage. A lot of people are criticizing him for expressing fear over the radio but at the end of the day he did his job well. It’s easy to Monday Morning Quarterback these situations but until you are experiencing it first hand, you don’t know how you will react. Everyone handles stress a little differently and, as someone else said, many CFIs are young and low time.

    I regret that this guy had a successful emergency landing and was probably proud only to see Youtube comments lampooning his performance and giving me credit for flying his plane.

    Edit: I uploaded the full ATC audio if anyone is interested’ https://youtu.be/B3mJoYBhVfo

    A cessna 172 stall speed is 55 or 58 with the flaps down. The photos show the plane with flaps up.

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