From tarmac to traffic
When the engine in his Cessna 150 plane failed at 700 feet late Friday morning, pilot Rick Harmon of Grass Valley said the only place he could land was the eastbound lanes of the busy Golden Center Freeway.
Harmon declared an emergency on his radio and flew his plane slower than traffic as he approached behind the cars, hoping drivers would see him and get out of the way.
Luckily, the two drivers leading traffic in both eastbound lanes happened to be pilots, too, and they safely slowed traffic to a stop, giving Harmon “plenty of room” to safely land, he said.
“Those pilots probably saved my life,” Harmon said.
No one, including Harmon, was injured during the 10:45 a.m. landing just west of the Dorsey Drive overpass, while the spectacle backed up traffic for about an hour and attracted hundreds of curious onlookers.
Officers from the California Highway Patrol, the Grass Valley Police Department and the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office were at the scene to take reports and direct traffic, while firefighters from the Nevada County Consolidated Fire District and the Grass Valley Fire Department guided the plane from the side of the road onto a flatbed tow truck.
Officers warned one woman – holding a camera, about to cross all four lanes of the highway to get to the plane – she would be arrested if she didn’t get out of the road.
Sheriff’s deputy Hap Penaluna commended Harmon for avoiding a collision, which could have resulted in injury or a gas-fueled wildfire on the side of the highway in dry, hot weather.
“It could have been worse,” Penaluna said. “It was a good outcome.”
“(Harmon) did a good job,” CHP Officer Jeff Pingree said.
Kayla Olson was working at Golden Green Rentals in the Hills Flat area when she and her fellow employees heard the plane. Olson said employee Jeff Jacobsen looked up to see the plane disappear behind some trees.
“It was so low he didn’t know if it was crashing or what,” Olson said.
One of the crowd on the overpass watching the drama was Kris Perez who lives in a nearby apartment. Perez said she saw a similar incident at the same location years ago when another private plane landed on the freeway.
“He made it under the bridge, but the wing hit and it flipped it upside down,” Perez said. “He walked away too.”
Harmon said he had just taken off from the Grass Valley airport, on his way to a “fly-in” in Columbia, Ca., when his engine died.
At 700 feet, he had still been climbing, and was too low to turn the plane around and return to the airport.
When he decided to land on the freeway, he called in a “may day” so paramedics and fire trucks would be alerted to head to the highway.
“I did everything I needed to do,” he said. “I used my training…It was a beautiful landing.”
Father and son pilots Alan Gaines and Jeff Gaines of Nevada City were flying over Grass Valley with a friend when they heard Harmon report his emergency and ask for a clear runway at the airport.
“The other pilots in the flight pattern said “Where is he? Where is he?” Alan said. “Finally someone said, ‘He’s landed on the freeway.'”
In his 39 years of flying which included a stint for Delta Air Lines, Alan has never seen a plan land on a road.
“I’ve seen a lot of aircraft go done in strange areas, but I’ve never seen one land on a freeway,” said son Jeff who flies attack helicopters for the U.S. Army and just got back from Iraq.
The plane was towed back to the Grass Valley airport at 11:45 a.m., where a mechanic would later examine it to determine the cause of the engine failure.
The FAA contacted Harmon immediately after the landing to learn more about the incident, he said, adding that he would not be cited or reprimanded for the accident because no one was injured and there was no property damage.
To contact Staff Writer Robyn Moormeister, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 477-4236.
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