Pilot, driver give thanks after Highway 45 emergency landing
QUITMAN, Miss. (AP) — Just above the lettering on her Ford Explorer's right sideview mirror, which read "OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR," Sandra Smith of Quitman spotted a single-engine aircraft zooming in.
"I thought ... that plane's flying awfully low," Smith said.
She stopped singing to herself and checked her rearview mirror in time to see that silver plane, about four car lengths behind her, drop out of the sky and spin off the side of Highway 45's southbound lane in Clarke County, about four miles south of the Lauderdale County line.
Above and behind her, the choice was clear for Meridian pilot Boyd Williams: ditch his plane, a 1946 North American Navion, to avoid hitting Smith's Explorer and causing injury, or worse, to them both.
"Preservation of life on the ground and in the air; it was not the best option for the airplane, but it was for you and me," Williams said as the two met Monday evening at the site of Oct. 5's emergency landing. They recounted the story from their individual perspectives and thanked God together for their lives.
Smith said the initial experience was like watching it happen on a big screen to someone else. The emotion settled in after she had called 911 at 3:42 p.m. and circled back to make sure the pilot was all right.
"The emotion hit me. I thought, it could have been my last day," Smith said. "At the moment it happened, I didn't think it was happening to me."
Williams, who has 32 years flying experience, said his engine cut out at 3,500 feet due to an unknown reason while en route to Gulf Shores, forcing the emergency landing.
When the engine started sputtering Williams, alone in the plane, called back to Meridian Departure to request permission to return to Meridian Regional Airport.
When the engine stopped seconds later, they determined he couldn't make it 14 miles back to Meridian airport or six miles to an airport in Quitman so Highway 45 was chosen as the best option, Williams said.
He spotted a gap after a row of four or five cars and proceeded to land. When he realized his 85 mph landing speed would overtake the last vehicle, Smith's white Ford Explorer, traveling at the 65 mph speed limit, he pulled the yoke back to stall the airplane, Williams said.
The plane dropped the remaining distance to the ground and landed on the side of the road, taking out one road sign, he said.
His landing gear sheared off at impact with a force of more than 12Gs, Williams said.
Williams spent time at his church, alone, Monday reflecting on the event and his years flying. He thought of his flight instructor, James Evans, who began teaching him to fly as a teenager.
"A calmness came over me when the engine cut out," Williams said. "I remember my flight instructor as a teenager taught me to always look for a place to land. As the engine cut out, I thought, all my life I've prepared for this. I can do this."
And he did.
The plane is a loss, but he walked away with only a sore back, and Smith made it home safely after an afternoon shopping at Bonita Lakes Mall.
Williams was examined at a hospital as a precaution that Friday night. That's where Smith tracked him down by phone through Angel Callahan, an agent in Williams' real estate agency.
"I knew I was going to contact him," Smith said Monday.
Although he's without a plane now, Williams said he can't wait to fly again.
"If that car wasn't there, I would have landed the plane, checked out what was wrong and have been back in the air then," Williams said.
The emergency landing is being investigated by the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board.
"Statistically, 80 percent of the time the cause comes back to pilot error, but I hope that's not the case," Williams said.
Williams said he didn't spot any potential for a problem before and during the flight, but an investigation could determine pilot error if there was a problem that he should have known about but missed.
Williams was featured in The Meridian Star last weekend after he found his daughter's cell phone in working order after an accidental drop of 1,000 feet from his plane near Bonita Lakes. Those odds were labeled astronomical.
"The word that stuck with me was astronomical," Williams said. "I was thinking what are the odds of someone being in an airplane accident, and then what are the odds of walking away from that accident without injury?
"I must be here to do some good."
Information from: The Meridian Star, http://www.meridianstar.com