OK, I made that up. My father, who died years before, had owned a furniture store in Cincinnati and fought WWII by working nights at the Wright engine plant in Evendale.
Whatever (but I'm pretty sure it was the State Trooper/Semper Fi thing), the corporal decided to let me fly off his highway and out of his life. The avgas was on its way and I surrendered to the TV and news guys waiting beside their vans. "Gosh," I shrugged into the microphones and cameras, "no big deal, really, something any pilot could handle. We're trained for it. Happens all the time." I was superb ... relaxed, smiling, charming, pretty, an academy award performance. When I later saw the videotape I was so strung out and wizened, I looked more like Grandma Moses instead of Holly Golightly. That prompted a consultation with the dermatologist about Botox or a full face lift?
Anyway, with fuel in the now securely capped tanks, the troopers stopped traffic for a half-mile stretch and I got the hell out of Dodge, TV cameras running. Yeah, 72B won on the landing at Wilkes-Barre Airport. It was dreadful!
I flew home late that afternoon and had my NASA form in the mail early Monday morning. FAA assigned the investigation to the Harrisburg FSDO inspector who assumed it was merely a "precautionary" landing. I didn't argue since I had, after all, taken the precaution of landing on the turnpike instead of in the trees.
If you read my stories you'll know they're pretty short on lessons or morals. Do you really need some dingbat telling you to put your fuel caps on tight? Besides, if you play by the rules you know the odds of a catastrophic, unannounced engine failure are astronomical. In 26 years investigating accidents I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of unannounced, unavoidable mechanical failures. But I am living proof that human beings are less than perfect and will always devise newer, more clever ways to screw up.
So, listen, I like to tell airplane stories and I want you to stay around to read them. If you fly single-engine airplanes do this for me. Go way, way back to basics and find out where the damn thing will land if the engine quits. Doesn't matter if you're flying a Bonanza, an RV, a TBM, a Pilatus, a Cub or a Caravan. Practice until you can put your airplane on the first third of the runway, or better, on or beyond a predetermined spot without power. A 180-degree, power-off approach. I know, I know, it's not required on the flight test, it involves dangerous low altitude maneuvering, shock cools the engine, it's not real-world flying, the sink rate is excessive, plus it raises your cholesterol and causes warts. Practice it anyway. Make a sport of it, like an old-fashioned spot landing contest. It's part of the art of flying an airplane and it can save your butt like it did mine.
I don't think my turnpike experience was "cute" and it isn't something I'm proud of. But it reinforced my creed. Did I do my best? Yeah, I honestly believed I'd done a good preflight and then I used all my skills to make a safe landing on the turnpike. The airplane? 72B is a fine machine, beautifully maintained (wanna see my checkbook?). Passengers? Thankfully, none, but I wouldn't have done anything different if there had been.
So? So, it wasn't my time. But, please, God, I really mean it about the pureed peas and the old ladies' home.
Epilogue About six months later, somebody decided that, before I could use my single-engine sea rating for flight checks, I should be retested by a "real inspector" instead of the designated examiner I'd flown with in Georgia. A friend had an 85 hp Aeronca Chief on floats tied up in the mud where the Little Miami joins the Ohio River, near Lunken Airport. So I drove over to CVG one morning and collected a nice little FAA man from a Michigan FSDO. He was nattily dressed for the en route inspection he'd just done into Cincinnati: wool slacks, a knockoff Harris Tweed sport jacket and polished tassel loafers. He was even carrying a leather Coach briefcase.
We arrived at the river okay, but getting him through the mud and into the Chief without falling in the water took some effort. He wasn't very tall and I had commandeered all the cushions, but he didn't object that he couldn't see over the panel. I think he was too terrified to say much of anything. So I sort of gave myself the check: "Here we go, with an idle taxi into the big river ... whoa, hold on, that's a barge swell ... OK, you'll wanna see a step taxi and how about a downwind turn ... ."
After a couple takeoffs and landings he shouted (no headsets) that was fine, he'd seen enough. We needed to get back to CVG so he'd have time to clean up for the flight home. So I secured the Chief and drove him back across the river to Greater Cincinnati.
"Fine flight check, Martha. Say, are you married? Really? Well, I'm single, too. Listen, we might get togeth ...," and my cell phone rang. I grabbed it, hugely grateful for the bailout.
"Hello, Ms. Lunken? This is the Pennsylvania Highway Department. You contacted us about an unpaid toll ticket at the Wilkes-Barre entrance to the turnpike last September." I began to laugh and kept laughing until tears were rolling down my cheeks and I had to pull over. "Hi," I choked and burst into another fit of laughter, "uh, I'm driving and really can't talk but I'll call you this afternoon."
I guess it all looked and sounded pretty wacky because this nice FAA guy seemed to forget about completing the "togeth" thing. As we pulled up in front of Terminal 3, I assured him I'd keep in touch, but that didn't seem to matter any more. "Hey, thanks ever so much. Have a safe trip. Oh, there's a men's room just past security where you can sponge off your jacket and the shoeshine guy will have you looking as good as new."