Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The wind beneath his wings

When I worked for the Pilot-News in Plymouth, IN, in 1990, we had a scanner in the newsroom, crackling messages from police and fire dispatchers. One day the siren at the volunteer fire department wailed and the scanner said "Plane in trouble over the airport." Three of us grabbed notepads and cameras and hopped in a car for a quick drive to the airfield north of town. When we arrived, city police and county sheriff cars were already parked beside the terminal with lights flashing. EMTs arrived minutes later, along with three fire engines. What was the problem?

Culver Military Academy, 15 miles south of town, had an aeronautics department. High school "cadets" over 16 could earn their pilot's license by logging airtime in one of the academy's four single-engine Piper Warrior training planes, like the one shown below. Each plane had dual controls, and one of the planes was circling overhead, burning off fuel. Upon take off, the instructor and student-pilot both felt a problem with the wheel under one wing. They circled low over the Culver field requesting visual inspection. The wheel had fallen off, so the instructor took the controls and flew with his student to Plymouth, where the grass runway was longer.

With so many flashing lights around the field, drivers on the highway next to the airport began pulling over to watch. One later told me, "I knew something was very wrong, so I prayed that God would be the wind beneath the wings of anyone in trouble."

The terminal put communication between the tower and the pilot on the PA system for all to hear. Fire trucks lined up at one end of the field, along with ambulances, ready to roll forward behind the damaged plane as it landed. My job was to stand next to the runway where the plane might stop if it crashed, to get photos of the explosion.

Over the PA system we heard the instructor radio, "One more circle, and I'm coming down." What happened next amazed us all. As the plane approached the field, the instructor tipped it 20 degrees, so only the one surviving wheel touched the ground. Then he kept the plane balanced on that wheel all the way down the field, until the Piper slowed, and stopped and flopped, with no damage and no injuries.

Absent an explosion, I ran to the plane for a comment from the "cadet" student as he climbed out. Had he been afraid? "No sir!" he replied smartly. "I have complete confidence in my instructor, sir."

Many praised the pilot for his skill that day. Some felt he was lucky. But at least one lady watching from her car near the highway thanked God for being the wind beneath his wings.

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