The pilot who landed his plane on Interstate 81 on March 29 didn’t call 911, but he did call the Federal Aviation Administration’s Air Traffic Control Tower at Tri-Cities Airport in Blountville.
“I need to put her down,” the pilot calmly said on the recording, after giving his call sign.
The Rutledge, Tennessee, pilot’s name is unknown since the Virginia State Police doesn’t have a report on the incident, according to a VSP spokeswoman. The fixed-wing white-and-blue craft safely touched down on the northbound side of the interstate about 6 p.m., on that Friday afternoon.
An air traffic controller asked the pilot if he was declaring an emergency. The pilot confirmed he was.
The air traffic controller responded, “What assistance do you require, what’s the nature of the emergency if you can tell me, and what are your intentions?”
“I’m going to assume I just had fuel exhaustion,” the pilot said.
He was told that Virginia Highlands Airport in Abingdon was about 6 miles east of him and was asked if he thought he could make it there. His altitude at the time was 4,200 feet. He wasn’t sure if he could make it, so he asked the air traffic controller if he thought he could.
“I don’t know if you can or not,” he said. “Are you able to just glide it down to Virginia Highlands?
When asked, the pilot said he was the only person on board the plane and that the plane was blue and white. At that point, he was 5 miles away from Virginia Highlands, so the air traffic controller asked him if he wanted to continue toward the airport or if he wanted to land somewhere else.
“I’m looking. I don’t know if I can find a spot to put her down,” the pilot said.
The air traffic controller said the only option he had was to land on I-81, which was 1.5-2 miles southeast of the plane’s location. The pilot said he could see I-81 in front of him and asked which side of the interstate he should land the plane on. The air traffic controller said he didn’t know what to tell him, but he let the pilot know there were “multiple obstructions” in his path.
During the call, the pilot seemingly indicated the engine was only sporadically running by saying it was “trying to run on and off.”
“So you’re planning on putting it down on 81?”
“I don’t think I have a choice,” the pilot replied.
Air traffic control then lost radar contact with the plane, and, shortly afterward, lost radio contact with the pilot, so another pilot who heard his broadcast relayed information from him. He let air traffic control know that the plane had landed on I-81 near the Exit 10 sign. The air traffic controller wanted him to let the pilot know emergency crews were on the way and to ask him if he needed anything.
The air traffic controller was told the pilot had landed his plane safely, wasn’t injured and was sitting in his plane on the shoulder of the interstate near Exit 10.
Washington County Virginia Central Dispatch received seven calls regarding the incident — six via 911 and one directly to them from an off-duty deputy. There were two calls between agencies.
Virginia State Police Master Trooper Patrick Lower said at the scene the problem was a faulty gas gauge on the plane, which led to the pilot not knowing it was nearly out of fuel until it began “sputtering and spitting.” The landing didn’t lead to any injuries or property damage. The pilot had just bought the plane that morning.
The Bristol Herald Courier received copies of the recorded calls via a Freedom of Information Act request.
The off-duty deputy called at 5:59 p.m. and was the first to report the plane had landed on I-81.
“I’m at the eight over four [mile-marker 8.4] northbound,” he said. “[Do] you know an airplane just landed on the interstate?”
The dispatcher’s response was, “Oh s---!”
“I don’t know if he had mechanical issues or what, but he just landed on [Interstate] 81,” the deputy replied with a chuckle of disbelief.
The first 911 call came in 21 seconds after the deputy’s call was answered, and the background at the dispatch center already sounded chaotic as calls about the incident were answered. A man calmly told the dispatcher that a plane had to “emergency land” on I-81 northbound between exits 7 and 10. He was transferred to VSP dispatch so he could report it to that agency as well.
Within seconds of that call, another call was answered regarding the landing.
The dispatcher told the caller they had already received some calls about it and were “getting some people headed that way.” The caller advised the dispatcher that it looked like the plane and pilot were OK.
A dispatcher who answered a call at 6 p.m. could be heard after the caller hung up telling other dispatchers that an airplane had landed on the interstate. The same dispatcher called VSP at 6:01 to let dispatchers there know about the landing.
“We got a trooper en route,” the VSP dispatcher said. “We’re getting a hundred thousand calls on it.”
A Washington County dispatcher also called the Virginia Department of Transportation at 6:01 p.m. to ask them to dispatch “TAMS” to the scene. TDOT spokeswoman Michelle Earl told the Herald Courier he was asking for Turnkey Asset Management — a company the department is contracted with to provide traffic control.
The last call was from someone in Glade Spring at the time who heard about the landing and wanted to make sure dispatch knew about it.
The plane was towed to Virginia Highlands Airport in Abingdon.
Copies of the recorded 911 calls VSP dispatch received and all other calls involving VSP in the plane landing that the agency’s dispatch center handled have been requested. All 911 calls go to local dispatch centers first, and if it’s necessary, are forwarded to VSP. Four 911 calls were forwarded to VSP.
As for the cost to respond to the unusual call, Earl estimated VDOT spent, including personnel and traffic control services, less than $500.
Virginia Highlands Airport Manager Mickey Hines said the airport paid $49.20 to send two employees to fuel the plane at the scene and around $5 for gas for the fuel truck. He said the pilot paid $93.20 for 20 gallons of fuel, a $150 afterhours fee for airport personnel to respond to the scene and $25 to rent a hangar space at the airport.
VSP and Sheriff’s Office officials said they didn’t incur any costs on top of daily personnel and operations expenditures in response to the incident.