Unexpected Landing: Stuff Happens

If you fly long enough, you will experience a problem in flight. Maybe you’ll hit a bird. Maybe your wings will ice up. Maybe you’ll get distracted in your pre-landing check and forget to lower the gear. Fuel lines get vapor lock. Gunk clogs the fuel injector. A bug or moisture fills the static port. Stuff happens.

Each kind of problem makes itself known if you know how to watch for the clues—and take them seriously.

My husband, Maury L. Fisher, MD, and I were flying a Cessna 210 from Bartow, Florida to Asheville, North Carolina on Friday, August 31 when the engine revealed a clue. Though we both have our licenses, I had fallen out of currency and was relegated to the copilot’s seat. Handsome was PIC. At 10,000’ the engine analyzer started acting wonky. That’s my technical term for when the cylinder head temperature reading disappeared on cylinder one.

In the past, a cylinder reading disappeared because a sensor probe came loose and backed out. This time, Handsome mentioned it and stated that since we were cruising at 184 knots, we couldn’t have lost the cylinder’s power. All other gauges of power and temperature and fuel flow remained steady and within the normal range on our 200-hour IO-550-L Continental engine.

So, we agreed to watch the gauges, continue the flight, and have it checked when we returned home. The Jacksonville air traffic controller cleared us to climb to 12,000 to get above clouds.

At 11,000’ the engine shook hard, and the happy engine hum turned into a galloping sound. Instead of showing six green columns, our engine analyzer showed three. We were over the Okefenokee Swamp, 684 square miles of alligator and snake-infested wetland that spreads across the Florida-Georgia border. The name Okefenokee is a Native-American word meaning trembling earth. I wanted to land on solid ground, like a runway or a road.

The autopilot struggled to maintain altitude. We lost horsepower. Handsome notified the Jacksonville controller that the engine was running rough. (The engine sounded like a horse trying to kick its way out.) He asked for the nearest airport. The controller offered Lake City at twenty-eight miles behind us or another airport thirty miles ahead. Handsome asked for Lake City’s identifier.

I took a quick inventory of emergency supplies. We had no water, a few snacks, two 9mm handguns, and a handheld radio. My wicked memory flashed to May 1996 when ValueJet Flight 592 crashed in the swamp near Miami with 110 people on board. It sank, and parts of it were finally located a month later. Handsome’s seaplane rating gave me some comfort.

My hand shook as I entered KLCQ into the autopilot as our new destination. I was about to press ENTER to activate the new destination when Handsome reached over and started the process over. He was in his zone, focused on what to do, so he hadn’t noticed the new reading. His hand wasn’t shaking.

The controller recited the heading to Lake City and the number of degrees to turn left on course. My body temperature rose while I calculated the rate of descent needed to reach Lake City if the last three cylinders stopped firing. We were descending 200 feet per minute on half power. Without power, we’d be forced to land in a roadless section of trembling earth.

flight path image

The engine seemed to be holding together. It wasn’t spewing oil or smoke. Handsome maintained a calm demeanor. Decades of working in the emergency room and in surgery had taught him to school his emotions. He also has 1500 more flying hours than his copilot.

I sent up a quick prayer and remembered that I’d once landed safely after a cylinder blew. I was grateful this was not a solo flight, or my turn to fly.

I imagine I would have done exactly as he did during the engine problem, but in truth, I’d have sweat-soaked the upholstery in the process like a nuclear hot flash.

The controller spoke in calming tones as he gave the tower frequency for Lake City Airport and the weather conditions there. He named the runways and reported that Lake City cleared us for any runway. Then he asked, “How many souls on board and how much fuel?”

There’s something about hearing an air traffic controller ask the question that ratchets up the stress factor. By the time the words are spoken you already know there’s a problem. But still.

Handsome answered him while I took a calming breath. At 3000’ we broke out from the clouds and saw the airport. Ten miles to go. Handsome said he wouldn’t drop the gear until he had the airport made. By ‘made’ he meant glide in with a dead engine.

On short final, he dropped the gear and pulled back the power. The engine’s syncopated rhythm sounded more pronounced. We landed and taxied to the end of runway 010, past the Lake City Fire Department’s tank-like yellow crash truck. We sputtered down the taxiway and passed a red firetruck to the parking area. The linemen directed us to a spot isolated from other aircraft.

There’s a moment in the movie Armageddon after men jump a rover over a canyon on an asteroid and crash land. Actor Michael Clarke Duncan, covered in sweat in the back seat, says, “Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Lord. Thank you.  Thank you. Thank you.” That. That’s how I felt.

We climbed out. The firemen, three police officers, two linemen, Handsome and I breathed a collective sigh. Bo, Byron, and Larry in the tower probably sighed, too. Thanks, guys!

Airport Lineman Crew Leader Ed Bunnell said, “Welcome to Lake City.” He secured chocks under the nose wheel. “What can we do for you?”

I wanted a hug. Handsome asked for a mechanic. While they arranged for a mechanic, I planned an emergency kit for future flights. We often fly over the Appalachian Mountains. It’s embarrassing how complacent we had become about these routine flights. Next time, we’ll bring bottled water, flashlights, granola bars, maybe a flare gun, a reflective blanket, a first-aid kit, a sweat towel, and a 45-caliber handgun. The Okefenokee has gators, and snakes, and black bears. Oh, my.


This article was first published in General Aviation News, January 10, 2019.

General Aviation News Cover

The Plane Truth

Getting my pilot’s license could be a boost for my marriage–if it didn’t kill us first.

“Why can’t you take up golf?” I pleaded when my husband, Maury, announced he was going to learn to fly. Fly? First the red sports car, now this? Was this part of a man’s “go-fast stage” of life?

But the more I tried to talk him out of his newfound desire, the more set he was to try it.

I had a feeling this one would test our relationship. And all my pleadings were in vain.

Throughout his training, Maury urged me to take lessons. But I wasn’t interested in riding in a small airplane, let alone piloting one.

I preferred tamer activities, such as water skiing in the alligator-infested lakes of Central Florida where we live. Of course, when I tried to learn to water ski, I broke a bone in my foot and sprained my neck. Bad knees prevented me from keeping up with him during snow skiing, and a near brush with drowning made scuba diving less than appealing.

But we wanted to find fun hobbies we could share. My pursuits of cross-stitch, gardening, and reading didn’t lend themselves to drawing us closer as a couple. And Maury, who loved flying from day one, believed sincerely he’d found just the hobby for both of us to experience together.

“You should try it. It’s really fun,” he insisted. I responded that I don’t appreciate being “should” upon. This hobby definitely wasn’t love at first sight—for me.

A death-defying ride

Several months later Maury earned his license and offered me a ride. My first impulse was to shout “No way!” But I knew how much it meant to him, so I nervously accepted.

During our flight, he explained how safe the plane was and how stable it flew in an engine failure. Then—at 4,000 feet above an orange grove—it sounded like the engine stopped.

While he excitedly told me how many miles the plane would glide, I sucked air and stared at the panel of blinking lights, knobs, and dials.

This stunt provoked not only panic but severely uncharitable thoughts toward the man I loved and had trusted.

“Handling emergencies,” he explained, “is part of the training.”

“Start it up again now!” I screamed. This was not how I wanted to spend my final moments.

“It’s okay. I have it under control,” Maury soothed, manipulating the hateful controls.

“Yeah, well, I don’t,” I yelled.

If hell had a theme-park this would be the featured ride, I thought.

The engine roared back to life and I resumed breathing. By the time we landed I’d calmed to seething fury. Maury was genuinely shocked that I hadn’t enjoyed my first ride. Apparently, by simulating the worst-case scenario— engine failure—he hoped to prove there was nothing to fear. He explained that a similar demonstration had impressed him, so he assumed it would have the same effect on me. I explained that it made me want to beat him senseless.

I can fly!

Clearly, Maury was committed to this hobby and would continue flying with or without me. My choices were: A) avoid small planes and spend weekends alone—which didn’t meet our doing fun hobbies together quota, or B) take a few lessons so I could land the plane in an emergency—such as if he ever choked the engine again.

After deliberating my options, I finally—reluctantly—chose option B. Flying was important to Maury, it was something I could do with him, and it could be an extra boost for our marriage—if it didn’t kill us first.

Maury was delighted. “You’re going to love this!” he said. “Just think about all the fun we can have together.”

Yeah, right.

Male pilots such as Charles Lindbergh, Eddie Rickenbacker, Chuck Yeager, and the ones so visible on commercial flights, gave me the impression that aviation was a male-dominated realm. The only significant woman pilot I could name then was Amelia Earhart. According to what I knew, Lindbergh was famous because he’d successfully flown across an ocean; Earhart because she had died trying. Not a ringing endorsement.

The few local women pilots I interrogated stressed that learning to fly wasn’t as mentally challenging as getting a college degree or as physically demanding as childbirth. After a “been there, done that” self pep talk, I called a certified flight instructor for an abbreviated course on how to call for help on the radio and to provide practice in landing the plane. Patient, courageous, and witty, Don Kohler had been flying longer than I’d been alive, and the folks at the airport said he didn’t scare easily.

Don and I practiced landings for weeks with both of us holding the controls while Don talked through the procedure. Over time he loosened his grip more and more until one day I looked over and saw his arms folded and his feet off the rudder pedals. I’d landed the plane! And with no injuries and no airplane parts left behind on the runway. Cue the Peter Pan soundtrack: “I can fly, I can fly. I can fly!”

The friendly skies

Flush with adrenaline and success, I wanted more. When I told my sweetie I needed more lessons, well, you’d think Ed McMahon had handed him a giant cardboard check. I hadn’t seen him that excited—with his clothes on, anyway—in years. Money flowed toward this mutual objective.

It wasn’t enough for me to go along for the ride or to hold the charts for him. It wasn’t enough for me to be an educated passenger. I wanted us to be a team of qualified pilots. After earning my private pilot’s license, I earned the coveted instrument rating so my husband and I could simply take turns flying. Maury earned a commercial license with seaplane, instrument and multi-engine ratings as well. While I’ll probably never catch up to him, I’ve achieved skills beyond his—and my—expectations. I even took a few aerobatic lessons, just for the thrill of it.

So what if my hair gets re-styled by headsets and I smell like aviation fuel? Who would think that 110 low lead could be an aphrodisiac? Friends who once told us we were crazy now ask for rides. To afford a great airplane we share ownership of a well-equipped Cessna 210 (identified as N761XD) with two other couples. I’m alive in my husband’s heart as a can-do woman who shares his new exciting world of aviation. Oh—and I love it when he calls me Captain.

Joni climbing into an RV-6Embracing my husband’s hobby taught me to stretch my boundaries and to overcome fear through knowledge and ability. Flying gives my husband a separate world from his high-stress job as an orthopedic surgeon. Flying gives me freedom. Flying gives us both a new and exciting dimension to our relationship.

According to the statistics branch of the Federal Aviation Administration, women hold only 6 percent of the airman certificates in the United States. I’m proud to be one of them. My husband is so proud that he works, “My wife is a pilot” into conversations. Sure, over the last eight years we’ve flown to West Texas, Northern Michigan, Grand Cayman, the Bahamas, and many places in between. But the more significant benefit of sharing this hobby is that it brings a level of intimacy—we trust each other with our lives. And we spend more time together.

Sharing a hobby helped prevent us from drifting apart when it seemed some days that our only common interests were our daughter and our faith. Though we also have separate interests, we have this one to share, to draw us together, and enjoy long after our child leaves home. I would have robbed our relationship if I hadn’t taken those trial flying lessons to see why my husband embraced this hobby. Maury was right. Flying is fun, and yes, for us, it beats playing golf.

This article first appeared in 2006 in a Christianity Today publication. They were publishing a series on how sharing a hobby can affect the marriage relationship. The original is in their archives.

Parts of this piece were adapted from AOPA PILOT.

Six Percent Sound Off


Cessna Centurion 210

This is me with my favorite plane.

Let a headset mess your hair,

Break a nail, you don’t care,

You have earned the right to fly.

Goodbye roads and hello sky!

High wing, low wing, try them all,

Aerobatics have a ball.

If any man should give you flack,

Check your six, I got your back.


Only six percent of pilots are women. I wrote this to a pal when she earned her wings. She said to share it. So to my sisters in flight, whatever you fly, this one’s for you, too!


Six percent.

This is hubby’s favorite airplane. I am his co-pilot.

Triple Tree Fly-In near Greenville, SC

North pavillion

North pavillion

The 7th Annual Triple Tree Fly-In near Greenville, SC, will be held from September 4th to 8th, 2013. This is not your port-a-potty and picnic table kind of fly-in. No, siree. As a veteran of five Triple Tree Fly-Ins, I enthusiastically recommend it for the southern hospitality of everyone involved. In rain and shine, I’ve had fun at Triple Tree.

First of all, the Triple Tree Aerodrome (SC00) has a grass runway (03/21) with a tower manned by FAA volunteers from Greenville, SC., for special events. Pat Hartness, retired CEO of Hartness International, bought the tower for $100 from a nearby military airfield and had it cut into quarters from top to bottom and reassembled on the Triple Tree airstrip. He won’t tell me how much that effort cost.

South pavilion overlooking lake

South pavilion overlooking lake

Secondly, surrounding the grass strip lies 400 acres of lush camp ground, two small lakes, a wooden pavilion on the south end of the field,  two wooden restroom buildings with granite counter tops, and a large masonry building on the crest of a hill overlooking the north lake that has a walk-in fireplace and kitchen manned by an army of friendly volunteers.

Owned by Pat and Marylou Hartness, the Triple Tree Aerodrome is best known for hosting radio-controlled airplane events that features one quarter-, one-third and even half-scale models. (The power to weight ratio is off the scale for these models.) The September fly-in is referred to as a full-scale model event.

Pilots from KGIF

Pilots from KGIF

Pat Hartness has a hangar full of radio-controlled airplanes on display at the south end of the field near the larger of the two lakes and the large pavilion where the Saturday night BBQ is held on a bluff overlooking the field. His full-scale toys are also kept there when he doesn’t need the hangar for concerts and parties.

Greenville Jet Center supplies a fuel trailer and a van for the event. The local chapter of the Civil Air Patrol volunteers manpower and a VHF Comm Radio for the control tower. Vendors offer food, souvenirs, and some airplane supplies.

Hands-on workshop

Hands-on workshop

And for those pilots who want hands-on workshops, come to the south pavilion behind the hangar. Wherever you go on the field or in the pavilions enjoy hangar talk, tall tales and the company of like-minded aviation enthusiasts.

Fishing, hiking, karaoke and cookouts around the lake make this a fun family getaway. On occasion the Fly-In offers a day tour to nearby shopping areas, and plantations.

Triple Tree Tower

Triple Tree Tower

Participants can camp by their airplanes at the north end of the field. The larger curved lake at the south end of the field can accommodate sea planes. Those wishing to bring campers or recreational vehicles can park near restrooms and showers at the south end of the field where there are limited power hookups. Tent camping and self-powered trailer camping falls under the trees at the north end of the field. Walking on the landing strip is not allowed for safety reasons. For those who prefer to stay in hotels, see the website for local listings. For more information, such as approach procedures and frequencies, hotels and camping info, see the website: http://www.tripletreeaerodrome.com/triple-tree-fly-in.php.


RV-6 N661DJ

Hubby and I will be arriving in a red and white RV-6, N661DJ. See you there!