A lot of people would be deterred from flying if they had been forced to land a small airplane on a highway amid moving traffic.
Brian Nicholson said his experience doing just that Tuesday morning on the Mon-Fayette Expressway has only made him more confident.
"It kind of strengthened my thought about flying," said Mr. Nicholson, 38, of Charleroi. "As a pilot you're trained for these emergency procedures, and yet it's kind of that great white shark scenario where not that many people actually have to do that.
"The way that it went down, it makes me a lot more comfortable to be in an airplane," he said.
The event began shortly before 11 a.m. Tuesday, 3,000 feet in the air, when the engine on Mr. Nicholson's 1946 Stinson 108-1 began vibrating. He and a passenger, John Armel, 53, of Republic were about halfway through their flight to Waynesburg after taking off from Rostraver Airport about 10 minutes earlier. Although they would not know this until they got on the ground, a chunk of propeller had broken off the airplane, causing it to become unbalanced.
What Mr. Nicholson, who has been flying for six years, did know was that he could not maintain altitude and had to land the aircraft as quickly as possible. Mr. Armel, a fellow teacher in the Brownsville Area School District and a pilot of 13 years, said he saw the highway ahead and realized what needed to be done.
"There was really no place else for us to put the airplane down," Mr. Armel said.
After contacting emergency frequency to alert them of his landing plan, Mr. Nicholson began his descent, lining up over the southbound lane to move with the flow of traffic. At one point, the plane was about 25 feet above ground headed for a Route 40 exit sign, Mr. Armel said, not high enough to go over and not low enough to go under. Mr. Nicholson cut left above the median into the ongoing traffic to avoid the sign and then back right over the median into the correct lane, Mr. Armel said.
Their next obstacle was the Route 40 overpass ahead of them, which Mr. Armel said he knew they could only avoid by grounding the plane ahead of it. Although the expressway was not especially busy, Mr. Nicholson did have to time his landing in front of a semitrailer moving slower than the plane and behind a car that was passing the truck.
Mr. Nicholson said he does not think either driver noticed the plane until it was right above them.
"The oncoming traffic saw me, but I don't believe anybody was looking behind them in the mirror 100 feet above them, wondering what was going to happen," Mr. Nicholson said.
After landing, they managed to pull the plane off to the side of a Route 40 on-ramp. Mr. Nicholson said he estimates only four or five minutes passed between the time the engine started vibrating and the plane was on the ground.
Fire, EMS, state police and Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission maintenance workers arrived at the scene shortly after a driver on the highway flagged down a state trooper.
Mr. Armel said they would have taken off again that afternoon if the Turnpike Commission had allowed it.
"We wanted to put a new propeller on it and take off from there and just continue on our day, but they wouldn't let us," Mr. Armel said.
Once officials confirmed the emergency landing was not due to pilot error, the plane was released to Mr. Nicholson. It had to be taken apart and returned to storage in pieces, Mr. Nicholson said.
Mr. Armel said both he and Mr. Nicholson managed to remain calm throughout the incident.
"He knew he was busy flying the plane, so he didn't have time to be nervous," Mr. Armel said. "He did an excellent job doing what he had to do."
Gavan Gideon: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-4910. Liz Navratil contributed.