The plane crash that wasn’t

By Racey Burden | Published Saturday, October 15, 2016

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In the Messenger newsroom, hearing about a potential plane wreck on scanner is a rare occurrence, which is a good thing.

Yet somehow in the year-and-a-half I’ve worked here, we’ve heard multiple crashes reported – almost never has a crash actually occurred. Just this past week we listened for about two hours for a reported crash near Aurora, only to find out someone likely mistook a stunt plane flying in a dive for an accident. It was nothing. Unfortunately, I know personally how easy it is to become one of those misreported emergency calls.

Racey Burden

Racey Burden

Listen, I want to make this clear from the beginning – we weren’t in any danger of actually crashing the plane.

It was just practice. I’ve been training for my private pilot’s license for several months now, and part of that training is practicing engine out procedures. So the instructor, who in this case is my dad, will pull the power to the engine, and then it’s time to “work the problem.”

Put the plane in position for best glide speed, which on the Cherokee 180 I fly is 80 mph. Pick a field to land in. Act like the engine actually did stop with no intention of coming back on, and go through the motions of what you’d do to try to start it again – turn the fuel pump on, switch fuel tanks, adjust the fuel mixture to the richest setting, mess with the ignition switch, turn the carburetor heat on.

The next task is to assume nothing works and go through the motions of preparing for a hard landing – turn the fuel pump off, turn the gas tank switch to off, pull the fuel mixture, turn the ignition switch off, crack the plane door, make a mayday call, turn off the master switch that controls the electricity.

On this particular flight sometime in April, when we were about 100 feet above the field I’d chosen for our fake emergency landing, my dad pushed the power back to full throttle, and we took off again. We continued to head away from the Bridgeport airport, where we took off, and toward Decatur to practice landing patterns.

The problem was that a friend of my dad’s, Stan, was running along the runway at Bridgeport, and he saw us go down. He just missed the part where we came back up.

Stan tried to call my dad, but John Burden has a steadfast rule about refusing to talk on the phone when he’s flying. He didn’t answer. Stan gathered more concerned friends. They couldn’t reach us on the radio because we’d switched to the Decatur frequency.

As far as they knew, we’d gone down in a field. Several emergency agencies were contacted.

We’d told one of the guys at the airport what we were doing that day, and he would have known not to be worried – but no one thought to call him.

Meanwhile, we kept practicing landings in Decatur for another hour, unaware that seemingly half the county was searching for a downed plane near Bridgeport. That included my colleagues David Talley and Joe Duty, who heard about a plane crash over the police scanner and headed that way.

One rule of listening to scanner in a newsroom is that you always cover plane crashes, regardless of how minor or serious they are, because they’re so rare.

But there was no plane crash. Dad and I turned around and flew back to Bridgeport. As we got closer to the airport, we saw a smaller plane take off. It didn’t really go anywhere, just made a big loop around us.

I made the call to enter the landing pattern – “Bridgeport traffic, 7-2-9-7 Whiskey is three miles east, headed in for a left downwind to runway 1-8, Bridgeport.”

“John, is that you?” a voice asked over the radio.

My dad took over. “Yes, who’s this?”

It was Jason, another one of Dad’s airport friends and the owner of the plane we were flying. He told us that Stan thought we went down, and he was out looking for us in a borrowed plane.

As we landed at Bridgeport, I could see the flashing lights of a police car pulling up to the hangars. Dad was muttering under his breath, something about “being ridiculous.”

“Are they here for us?” I asked dumbly.

“Yes,” he grumbled.

I tried to go through the after-flight process as quickly as possible. Dad didn’t seem to be in a similar hurry to talk to law enforcement.

As I put the plane back in the hangar Dad explained to the officer that he was a flight instructor, that we were doing required emergency, engine out practice and that everything was under control. Now unconcerned, the officer called the search off and left the airport.

I texted David to ask if they’d heard anything about a plane crash. He said, yes, and he and Joe had been on their way until someone said over scanner that the pilot had landed safely at the airport.

“Yeah,” I texted back, “that was me.”

Thus the Great Plane Crash Hoax of 2016 was born, and although it was a complete accident (and everything was always under control), my personal and professional life intersected in such a way that I still haven’t managed to live it down at work.

What an odd legacy to have.

Racey Burden is a Messenger reporter.

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