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Pilot walks away from engine-failure landing near McGrath

Zaz Hollander
Will Johnson was forced to land his plane in trees near McGrath last week.
Will Johnson
Debbie and Will Johnson. Will Johnson made a forced landing in his float plane August 23, 2013.
Photo courtesy of Will Johnson

The engine on Will Johnson's float-equipped Cessna 206 cut out a thousand feet above the tree-studded tundra near McGrath.

The plane started losing altitude.

Johnson let it.

The 66-year-old commercial pilot knew enough to push the plane's nose down and let gravity take over.

He looked for a place to land in the rugged terrain near the headwaters of the Innoko River. Avoid ravines, Johnson told himself. Stay out of dense trees.

Among the stunted stands of black spruce, a thinner patch came into view. Johnson pointed the plane that way.

Trees slapped the Cessna's wings. The floats dragged in the tundra. The plane slowed, then stopped.

Johnson landed without a scratch. His motion-triggered Emergency Locator Transmitter didn't even go off. The plane's wing sustained some damage, but the fuselage and floats held just fine.

"The most difficult part was walking out," he said Thursday from Fairbanks. "It was a very gentle landing."

Johnson used an array of aviation-safety technology to alert authorities and family members to the Aug. 23 accident just before 5 p.m. Then, with the help of an Alaska Wildlife Trooper, he picked a route across spongy tundra to a dirt road less than two miles away. He was in McGrath by 10:30 that night.

Johnson credits everybody else for his success.

Brett Gibbens, the McGrath-based trooper, overflew the area and glimpsed a dirt mining road less than two miles west of the planes.

Gibbens relayed coordinates to Johnson via the plane's radio, according to the troopers. Then he landed in Takotna and drove a borrowed state Department of Transportation & Public Facilities truck to the place he figured the pilot would emerge. There the trooper made so much noise -- Gibbens couldn't be reached Thursday but Johnson thinks he was banging on the truck -- that Johnson homed in on the spot and popped out there.

"The guy was so professional and so amazing," Johnson said. "I can't say enough about what he did."

He also credited the "incredibly gracious" staff at the Innoko National Wildlife Refuge who contacted the troopers after Johnson called them on a satellite phone to let them know about his forced landing. Johnson had just dropped off a crew of refuge interns from a remote research camp when the accident happened.

And he raved about the "absolutely mind-boggling" DeLorme inReach SE that let him text a quick message -- "ENGINE FAILURE. ALL OK" -- and then tracked his movements, sending geographic points to his wife, Debbie, as she monitored his progress across the tundra.

"You know, you're unsure about possible internal injuries," Debbie Johnson said Thursday. "I knew he was walking out. I knew he must feel good or he wouldn't attempt that."

Johnson owns and operates Yute Air Taxi, a charter and flightseeing business based at Wolf Lake near Wasilla. He and Debbie also own Alaska Satellite Internet. They live in Fairbanks.

A pilot with 20,000 hours of flight time, Johnson is a certified flight instructor.

For the first time, he got to practice what he preaches.

"What I teach is fly the airplane," he said. "The airplane will fly perfectly without an engine. It just is going to come down."

The accident marked Johnson's first forced landing, though he's done a few precautionary landings after losing power.

"I've been flying since high school," he said. "I've never had (an engine) just so suddenly, absolutely without warning go from running perfectly to not running at all. But the propeller was spinning. It was clear to me I needed to just concentrate."

Johnson points to his experience as a glider pilot to explain basic aerodynamics: wings provide lift but without the thrust provided by a working engine, a pilot needs to rely on gravity to go forward. Johnson called it "giving up altitude to maintain your speed."

A pilot in a stall situation needs to let the plane's nose drop like it naturally wants to, he said. "But sometimes it's hard for folks because they know the plane's going down and they see the ground coming up." Fighting to keep the plane's nose up causes it to slow down because it loses lift. That can lead to a crash.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the accident and will examine the Cessna's engine once it's recovered, aviation accident investigator Joshua Cawthra said Thursday.

Johnson said he'll either use a helicopter to lift the Cessna out or wait until snow covers the area, take the plane apart, and haul it out by snowmachine.

Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com or 257-4317.

 


By ZAZ HOLLANDER
zhollander@adn.com