SPARTANBURG, S.C. (WSPA) – An aircraft pilot with limited experience in the air made a difficult emergency landing in North Carolina when his plane’s engine shut down over a heavily wooded area in the Great Smoky Mountains.
Vince Fraser, 31, who has less than 100 hours of flight time, lost power to the engine of his 1967 Aero Commander single-engine plane, and struggled to find a suitable location to set the aircraft down in the dense forests of Swain County, located in the southern Appalachian mountains of North Carolina, about 55 miles west of Asheville.
Fraser and his father-in-law were on a trip to look at a property they wanted to purchase in North Carolina near Fontana Lake. After looking at the property, he attempted to fly out of the lake basin to return to the airport. The plane then lost power.
“As I started climbing, the aircraft just sort of stopped climbing,” he said. “I had to pitch down more to keep the airspeed.”
Trying to remain calm, he went through a checklist of steps needed to restart the engine in case of a failure. It started.
Fraser said it took a few moments for his father-in-law to realize it wasn’t a prank.
“He looked at me and said ‘Just do whatever you can. Do what you can do. I trust you,'” Fraser remembered his father-in-law saying at the time.
As he scanned the landscape for a place to land, Fraser quickly realized there wasn’t an opening to set the plane down. The terrain was covered in dense woods, which also obscured any small roads he could have used as a runway in the area.
“There’s just nowhere to land,” he said.
Then the aircraft stalled. Fraser went through the checklist, starting the plane’s engine for the second time. A few minutes later, the plane’s engine shut down again. Fraser ran through his checklist, and the plane’s engine started for the final time.
It would not start again.
“I’ve restarted the aircraft three times. It just won’t stay running. It keeps shutting off mid-flight. It’s windmilling — the prop is going but we’re not getting any power,” Fraser said.
At this point, with hope fading, Fraser said he looked to his father-and-law and apologize for putting him in danger.
“I looked at him and I told him I was sorry, and that I loved him. From there on out, it’s just a commitment,” he said. “Let’s see what’s going to happen. Let’s do this the best we can.”
As he scanned the terrain for a spot to land the plane, Fraser says he luckily noticed a bridge in the distance and decided to put the aircraft down there, but something went wrong.
“So we get to the bridge, probably 1,500 feet from that bridge. I’m looking down, and I’m seeing all the people on the bridge, and I am seeing how narrow it is, and how short the bridge is.”
His luck turned bad. There were people on the bridge. The landing would be too risky and would have endangered people standing on the bridge, he decided at the time.
“It would just be a bad outcome,” he said. “I can almost guarantee you . . . a horrible outcome.”
The bridge, however, gave him an idea. Beneath the span, he noticed a river and decided to ditch the plane in the water.
“I’m going for the river. I’m lining up perfectly for the river, and I look to my left, and there’s Highway 19. You couldn’t see it before because of all the valleys and the mountains and the trees, but it just appears,” he said.
He says the plane had just enough elevation to land on the road.
“Now we’re headed to Highway 19. I see powerlines. I see cars, curves, trees, hills. I have no other option. This is the only and best option for us right now,” he said.
As he descended, Fraser flew the plane under power lines to avoid hitting them. He then approached two cars traveling in the same direction. He pointed the plane’s nose down to pick up speed, passing the cars from above in the process.
He then set the plane down on its wheels on Highway 19 just west of the T.A. Sandlin Memorial Bridge over the Little Tennessee River. The cars behind him noticed the aircraft and slowed down.
People were soon gathering around his plane, which came to a rest safely on the highway near Johnson Road, directly in front of a stop sign, he said.
The entire ordeal, from start to finish, was over in about three minutes, he said, after later viewing the video footage of the flight he captured with a GoPro camera and shared with 7News.
Fraser says he was too focused on trying to get the aircraft off the road to clear the path for cars that he didn’t even pay attention to the onlookers.
The local fire department and North Carolina State Highway Patrol arrived within minutes, he said.
“They pulled up and I just kind of stood in front of the aircraft, took a deep breath and tried to collect myself,” he said.
A mechanic later discovered the cause of the engine failure was a fuel shortage in one tank.
The plane has fuel tanks in both wings, but only one was supplying the engine, which requires both to run. The fuel from the other tank appeared to be clogged and would not let fuel pass to the engine, he said.
After the quick cleaning of the tanks and fuel line, Fraser and his father-in-law flew the plane off the mountain three days later, and after a short layover, returned home to Cape Coral in Florida on Thursday, July 7.
The “traumatic” experience has made Fraser’s relationship with his father-in-law better than before, he said.
“Now when I give him a hug, I actually embrace him. I don’t know that it’s changed our love for each other but it has definitely made it stronger,” he said.