Heaven Helped This Pilot Make an Emergency Landing

Thrust into a life-and-death situation, she learned that, though she had no passengers, she wasn't alone.

by
- Posted on Aug 28, 2019

Cathy Lewan, a second-generation flyer, poses with her Cessna

It was brisk and clear that February afternoon, ideal weather for getting shots of the construction site I’d been hired to photograph. At the Madison, Georgia, municipal airport, I made my preflight checks on my Cessna 172, inspecting the exterior—including the wings, fuel tanks, tires and engine. And then the interior—lights, gauges, instruments, radio and so on—as I went through the laminated pages of my checklists. A routine I’d followed diligently for 23 years as an aerial photographer. I craved the comfort of routine. It had been a rough week for my family and me. We’d buried my brother-in-law the day before. Although he’d been ill, we’d expected him to pull through. His death made me reflect on life and how quickly it passes.

I buckled myself into the pilot’s seat and slung my camera strap around my neck. I put on my headset, started the engine and taxied to the runway. Just before takeoff, I paused to ask, “Dear Lord, please keep me safe.” The same prayer I said before every takeoff and landing.

I pushed the throttle forward all the way so it was fully open and pulled back slowly on the yoke. The single-engine Cessna soared into the Georgia sky. For the first time in days, my shoulders, my entire body, relaxed. Flying always had that effect on me.

I’m a numbers person. I like to quantify things—graphs, pie charts, measurements. That’s why I loved flying. It made sense to me. I understood wind force and drag, the power of lift and thrust. No mystery to them. Not like God. I’m a believer, a churchgoer, but it was hard to wrap my head around how he works. Sometimes I found myself trying to prove his existence with facts and figures. Up in the sky, though, my questions stilled, and I felt closer to God.

Thirty-five minutes after takeoff, I reached the construction site, which happened to be 10 miles southwest of giant Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. I love the challenge of aerial photography—flying low, performing acrobatic maneuvers with the plane to get the shots—and I set to it.

The wind whipped through the open window as I leaned out and snapped photos. I turned on the heater to knock off some of the chill. Within seconds, gray smoke filled the cockpit. The strong smell of oil told me it wasn’t an electrical fire. Was something wrong with the engine? I turned off the heater, and the cockpit cleared. That didn’t mean the problem was fixed.

I’d have to find a safe spot to land and check the plane. I pulled back on the throttle to reduce my speed. No response. I tried several times, pushing the throttle in and out. Nothing.

I didn’t know how I was going to slow down and land. In all my years of flying, I’d never had this happen. I’d never even heard of this happening!

 

I flipped through my emergency shutdown procedures. The first line said to lean the mixture, meaning to shut off the gas flow. I was about to pull the fuel mixture knob when I read the next line: Do not do this with throttle open. My throttle was stuck open. There wasn’t a checklist to follow for that.

Was I doomed to keep flying until the plane ran out of fuel and crashed?

I was also flying into the worst place on earth for a small plane. Hartsfield-Jackson is the busiest airport in the world, with almost 900,000 takeoffs and landings per year. No small plane had ever been permitted to land in an emergency at the airport in its 90-year history. The airspace was filled with jumbo jets that would make my Cessna look like a gnat in comparison.

I couldn’t think of anything I could do that wouldn’t cause a disaster.

“Oh God!” I cried. “Help me! Please!”

I turned my transponder to 7700, the emergency frequency. Then I tried to contact Hartsfield-Jackson air traffic control. I called and called. No answer. They couldn’t hear me.

“Atlanta approach,” I radioed again, in desperation. “Cessna 7266 Delta. Ten to the southwest. Two thousand feet.”

Silence.

“Four hours of fuel. One soul on board.” I almost choked on those words.

I pictured my family. My husband and three children. My mom. My sister, who’d just lost her husband. My brothers. Then I thought of my late father.

Dad had been an Army pilot. When I was two, he flew a dangerous mission in Iran. It was winter, snowing hard. His instruments stopped working. He and his crew had to fly blind. They crashed into the side of a mountain. Everyone on board survived the crash, but they were in 30 feet of snow. Trying to hike out, my dad somehow got separated from the group. The others were rescued. A search party led by the captain of the Iranian ski team went out to look for my father. It wasn’t until six months after the crash that his body was found, not far from the wreckage of the plane. My dad had died alone on that mountain. That thought always haunted me.

I didn’t want to die in my airplane, all alone.

The radio crackled. “Six Six Delta.” My call letters.

It was a Delta Air Lines pilot. He’d heard me and figured out what was going on. I’d flown into a known dead communication spot. No planes flew at that altitude. That’s why the air traffic controllers hadn’t heard me. He communicated with them for me and relayed to me where to adjust my altitude and what frequency to get on.

Air traffic controller Mason Braddock answered my distress call. I told him about my broken throttle.

He said they had never run into this malfunction but were assembling a team of experts to help me, including a flight instructor to provide an emergency landing procedure. “Keep circling. We’re going to get you safely on the ground.”

I circled near a busy runway, taking deep breaths.

“Six Six Delta, is it your intention to land?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Six Six Delta, where are you based?”

“Madison, Georgia.” I knew why he was asking. He wanted to figure out what I could handle. “I’m an aerial photographer. I can do this.”

“Six Six Delta, turn south and come in closer. We’re going to let you land.” I felt limp with relief.

Then the wind picked up, blowing at 18 knots and gusting. That was nothing for a 747, but for my Cessna, it was dangerous.”

Suddenly, my plane was being tossed around as if I were in the middle of a tornado. I was surrounded by airbuses and 747s. I positioned myself where I wouldn’t get caught in the wake of turbulence. My airspeed slowed.

Alarms went off in the cockpit. Not enough airflow over the wings to provide lift. “I’m about to stall!”

The stall warning horn screamed. I was close to the ground. I knew I could go into a full stall any minute. Gusting winds pushed against me. My airspeed dropped. One hundred knots…90…70…40.

“Six Six Delta, keep your speed up. We’re putting some equipment on the ground to help you.”

I spotted emergency vehicles racing across the tarmac, their lights flashing. They think I’m going to crash!

In my mind’s eye, I saw two images. The first was yellowed newspaper clippings about my father’s crash. The second was a snapshot of yesterday’s funeral. How could my family handle two deaths in one week?

I radioed Mason. “Can I ask you a favor? Would you call my husband for me?” I gave him the phone number. “Ask him to get a prayer chain going at my church and ask the whole church to start praying, and everybody else that’s listening.… And call my mother.”

“We’re going to call right now and make sure everyone knows we’re taking good care of you.”

Mason told me that it was likely my throttle cable had broken—something a mechanic would have to fix. I’d have to land first. He went over the plan with me. “You’re set up for runway one zero. It’s going to be a normal landing. The only difference is that you’re going to cut power right before you touch down.”

A tailwind pushed me underneath traffic. It unnerved me to see all those 747s. I circled back to the south. “Just give me a few minutes, please.”

“Six Six Delta, you don’t have to go if you don’t want to. We’re in no hurry.” Mason’s voice was calm, reassuring. “Would you like to do a flyby?”

“That would be great,” I said. I circled the plane around again, getting a feel for the runway.

Mason passed along instructions on how and when to lean the fuel mixture to stop my engine.

“Thank you,” I told him. “And be sure to thank the emergency crew.” I thought but didn’t say, If I don’t make it.

I let out a breath that I didn’t realize I’d been holding. “Dear Lord, please keep me safe.”

“Six Six Delta, shallow approach.”

Listening to Mason’s voice steadied me. The big planes around me faded away as I focused everything I had on that 9,000 feet of runway before me. I’d landed on a grass airstrip before, surrounded by trees and power lines. I didn’t need 9,000 feet, I reminded myself. I could do this.

Right above the runway, I leaned the fuel mixture. The engine cut off. The Cessna dropped like a rock. The wheels hit with a jolt. Then the plane rolled to a stop—I’d needed just 200 feet. I looked up and said, “Thank you, Lord!”

A few months later, I got to meet Mason Braddock and the rest of the air traffic control team that had helped save my life. I hugged every single one of them. “Start to finish, I felt like I was in the best hands I could be in,” I said.

My mother came, too, to thank them. “I’ve got to ask,” she said. “If in ninety years, you never let a small plane land in an emergency at Hartsfield, why did you let Cathy?”

Everyone was silent for a moment. Then one of the controllers said, “Well, it was so strange. All of a sudden, when you needed to land, traffic just stopped.”

“You don’t think that was a coincidence, do you?” I said.

I’ve come to accept that God can’t be contained by facts and figures. Or even by death. His presence is all around us. My dad hadn’t been alone when he died on that snowy mountain. Any more than I’d been alone when my throttle got stuck and I had to land my little Cessna at the busiest airport in the world.

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