WATCH: Rookie Florida pilot lands on NC freeway after engine failure
SPARTANBURG, SC (WSPA) – An airline pilot with limited experience made a difficult emergency landing in North Carolina when his plane’s engine quit over a heavily wooded area in the Great Smoky Mountains.
Vince Fraser, 31, who has less than 100 flying hours, lost engine power in his 1967 Aero Commander single-engine plane and struggled to find a suitable location to land the plane in the county’s dense forests of Swain, located in the southern Appalachians of North Carolina.
Fraser and his stepfather were on a trip to view a property they wanted to buy in North Carolina near Lake Fontana. After viewing the property, Fraser attempted to fly out of the lake basin to return to the airport. The aircraft then lost power.
“When I started to climb, the plane kind of stopped climbing,” he said. “I had to dive more to keep up the speed.”
Trying to stay calm, he ran through a checklist of the steps needed to restart the engine in the event of a failure. It started.
Fraser said it took his stepfather a few moments to realize it wasn’t a prank.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Do whatever you can. Do what you can do. I trust you,'” Fraser recalled.
As he scanned the landscape for a place to land, Fraser soon realized that there was no opening to land the plane. The terrain was covered in dense woods, which also obscured any small roads he might have used as a trail in the area.
“There’s just nowhere to land,” he said.
That’s when the plane stalled. Fraser ran through the checklist, starting the plane’s engine for the second time. A few minutes later, the plane’s engine flamed out again. Fraser went through his checklist and the plane’s engine started for the last time.
He wouldn’t do it again.
“I restarted the plane three times. It just won’t stay running. It keeps shutting down mid-flight. It’s windmill – the propeller is spinning but we’re not getting any power,” Fraser said.
With hope fading, Fraser said he turned to his stepfather and apologized for putting him in danger.
“I told him I’m sorry and that I love him. From there it’s just a commitment,” he said. “Let’s see what happens. best we can.
As he scanned the terrain for a place to land the plane, Fraser said he noticed a bridge in the distance.
“So we come to the bridge, probably 1,500 feet from that bridge. I look down, and I see all the people on the bridge, and I see how narrow it is and how short the bridge is.
Landing would be too risky, Fraser determined, and would have endangered those on deck.
“It would just be a bad result,” he said. “I can almost guarantee you… a horrible outcome.”
The bridge, however, gave him an idea. Below the span, he noticed a river and decided to land the plane in the water.
“I’m going to the river. I line up perfectly towards the river, and I look to my left, and there’s highway 19. You couldn’t see it before because of all the valleys and mountains and trees, but it just appears” , did he declare.
He says the plane had just enough altitude to land on the road.
“Now we’re heading to Highway 19. I see power lines. I see cars, curves, trees, hills. I have no other choice. It’s the only and best option for us right now,” he said.
Fraser flew the plane under power lines and approached the freeway. He pointed the plane’s nose down to pick up speed, passing cars below in the process.
He then landed the plane on its wheels on Highway 19 just west of the TA Sandlin Memorial Bridge over the Little Tennessee River. The cars behind him had slowed down.
People soon gathered around his plane, which came to a safe stop on the freeway – and right in front of a stop sign.
The whole ordeal, start to finish, was over in about three minutes, he said, after later viewing video footage of the flight he captured with a GoPro camera and shared with the WSPA.
Fraser said he was too focused on trying to get the plane off the road to clear the way for the cars that he didn’t even pay attention to onlookers.
Local firefighters and the North Carolina State Highway Patrol arrived within minutes, he said.
“They stopped and I just stood in front of the plane, took a deep breath and tried to pull myself together,” Fraser said.
A mechanic later discovered that the cause of the engine failure was a fuel problem with one of the two tanks in the wings. Only one powered the engine – fuel from the other tank appeared to be clogged and not letting fuel through.
After a quick cleaning of the tanks and fuel line, Fraser and his father-in-law got the plane off the mountain three days later. After a short stopover, they returned home to Cape Coral, Florida on Thursday, July 7.
The experience, while “traumatic,” strengthened Fraser’s relationship with his stepfather, he said.
“Now when I give him a hug, I really kiss him,” Fraser said. “I don’t know if it changed our love for each other, but it definitely made it stronger.”