PORTLAND, Maine — Landing an airplane on the highway during rush hour without an engine, as Falmouth pilot Sachin Hejaji did Thursday evening, is a maneuver “very few people … could pull off,” an executive with the company which owns the aircraft said Friday.
Jim Iacono of Maine Aviation Aircraft Leasing LLC also said that commuters on Interstate 295 in Cumberland also deserve credit for having the presence of mind to give the plane space to come down.
In a brief meeting with reporters at Maine Aviation’s headquarters on the Portland International Jetport campus Friday morning, Iacono said the investigation into what caused the nearly 30-year-old Cessna 152’s engine to stall at 2,000 feet Thursday is ongoing, but he said his company’s mechanics believe the plane ran out of fuel.
Iacono said Maine Aviation, which rented the plane to Hejaji on Thursday for a roundtrip to Waterville, has been in contact with the pilot in the aftermath of the harrowing incident.
Hejaji, described by Iacono as a veteran pilot and regular Maine Aviation client, did not immediately respond to a phone call or email seeking comment Friday.
“We have had some communication with him, but right now we’re letting him relax a little bit today. That was a pretty traumatic event for him,” Iacono said. “He’s got good experience. He’s well qualified to fly that aircraft. That’s an entry level airplane that Cessna manufactures. We vet all the renters before they go out in any of our aircraft.”
According to police, Hejaji landed the plane in the southbound lane of Interstate 295 near mile 13, close to the Cumberland-Falmouth line, on his return trip from Waterville to the Portland jetport. The pilot taxied the Cessna to the median, where it was ultimately moved onto a truck and taken to a hangar in Yarmouth.
Inspectors from the Federal Aviation Administration, Maine Department of Transportation and Maine Aviation officials planned to examine the plane Friday.
“He did everything he was taught to do and he did it well, considering the circumstances,” Iacono said of Hejaji. “He remained calm and he was able to put the plane down. As we saw, he was able to sort of marshal the traffic behind him so he could clear an area in front of him to put the plane down.”
Sharing the highway with a Cessna was the last thing Washington resident Len Lewis thought would happen while driving to Portland for dinner and a show with his wife, Cara.
“We’re in pretty tight traffic and all of sudden this light came out of nowhere,” Lewis said Friday. “It was this big, bright white light in the back of the van and it’s going all over the place, side to side, almost like a strobe light.”
He estimated that at one point, the light was as close of four feet away from his wife’s burgundy minivan.
“I’m looking back behind us and thinking, what the heck is this thing?” said Lewis, an elementary school teacher and father.
As the couple continued on to Portland, they saw police and emergency vehicles heading in the opposite direction.
“And I thought, the kids are going to see this on the news,” Lewis said. Not wanted them to worry, he called home and told one of the 17-year-old twin girls, “If you see something on the news, we’re OK.”
Curious, the teenager did an Internet search, learned of the emergency landing and called her parents.
“That’s the first time we had any idea what it was,” Lewis said.
“It was a silent ride home, let me tell you,” he said, adding, “My dad was killed in a car accident a couple of days before I was born, and my mom has always said he’s always looked after me. He was.”
Iacono said the pilot would have had to trust rush-hour drivers to understand what he was trying to do, even though they probably had never seen an airplane flying so close to a highway.
“It’s sort of a [process of], ‘Let’s hope they see [the plane] coming.’ I think the general public has a good understanding to have the common sense to do what they did, which was heed a little bit,” Iacono said. “From my understanding based on eyewitness accounts, he came in low, which sort of signals to people to stay behind him, and he brought the plane in on the highway.
“It’s something that very few people probably could pull off,” Iacono continued. “It is a very difficult maneuver and it’s one that really speaks to his efforts to keep calm and cool, and making sure that he had full control of the aircraft — and also knowing where he was and his surroundings.”
Iacono said pilots are taught to look for open areas, like highways, golf courses or fields, when they run into trouble in the air and are forced to make emergency landings.
“Preferably, [the landing is] out of the way of any people,” he said. “But in some situations you just don’t have that capability. … It could have been a lot worse if the pilot had not remained calm. We’re very fortunate and we’re very lucky that he did follow procedure and he did a great job landing the aircraft under the circumstances.”
Iacono said the wings of the airplane — which is worth between $50,000 and $60,000, but was not damaged in the landing — will be removed and it will be transported back to Maine Aviation, where mechanics will perform another maintenance evaluation before the wings are reattached and it is returned to service.
BDN writer Dawn Gagnon contributed to this report.