The Sky's Limits

Even experienced pilots such as Bel Air's Emory Wheat aren't immune to the dangers of flying. His reminder? Surviving a wintry crash landing six years ago in a South Dakota cornfield

July 23, 1999|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN STAFF

The corrugated metal door to the hangar swings open and there it is in the shadows: the single-engine Mooney that nearly killed Emory Wheat.

Actually, this is a slightly older version of the Mooney that came screaming out of the frozen night sky above South Dakota six years ago, when Wheat came as close to death as he'd ever care to.

In the stifling hangar at Martin State Airport now, Wheat lovingly rubs the wing of the small brown and yellow four-seater he bought a few years ago and smiles softly.

In the news, there has been much talk of small airplane crashes once again.

On a hazy, black night last weekend, the famous son of an ex-president and two passengers died when their small plane dropped from the sky and slammed into the ocean off Martha's Vineyard.

No one really knows what caused the crash of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane, whether it was equipment failure or a green pilot overmatched by difficult flying conditions or some tragic combination of both.

But here's the lesson you learn every time the aircraft's wheels leave the ground: Some pilots do all the right things and still run into moments of sheer, undiluted terror in the air, moments when their lives hang delicately in the balance.

And some pilots call on all their accumulated knowledge of flying -- and their nerve -- and survive.

This is what Emory Wheat did.

"Yeah, that's me -- a `survivor,' " says Wheat, chuckling softly.

He is 56 and lives in Bel Air. He's the chief Lear Jet pilot for Ward Machinery Co. in Cockeysville and does contract flying for local businessmen, such as banking magnate Ed Hale.

He's been a pilot for nearly four decades, but that's just a footnote in Emory Wheat's life.

More importantly, he's married with four kids and seven grandchildren, so he had a lot to live for on that freezing night in South Dakota six years ago, when everything seemed to go dreadfully wrong 11,000 feet above the Earth.

Going down

The flight from Billings, Mont., to Peoria, Ill., on Nov. 23, 1993, the second leg of a coast-to-coast business trip, began uneventfully.

Wheat was at the controls of the Mooney, and in the passenger seat was Scott Kirkendall, a long-time friend.

The plane was flying at 11,000 feet, on top of a solid bank of thick clouds. Temperature on the ground was minus-7 degrees. In the air it was about minus-20.

Then suddenly, about 9 p.m., a problem: Attempting to switch fuel tanks -- to run fuel from a different tank into the engine -- Wheat discovered the valve wouldn't move. "I had a half-hour of fuel remaining in that tank" that was operating, Wheat explains. "We didn't have enough to make Peoria."

So he radioed Air Traffic Control and requested the location of the nearest airport and its weather conditions.

The news crackled back: Mitchell, S.D., 52 miles away. The weather was not good: snow, winds gusting to 20 mph, limited visibility.

"At this point we were very tense. Uh, extremely tense," Wheat recalls. "I was pretty sure I was going to run out of fuel and have to make an off-airport landing.

"That," he adds, "is a nice way of saying a crash."

If things were tense in the cockpit at that point, the tension was ratcheted up considerably when, 35 miles from the airport, the engine stopped running.

With the electrical equipment out, they began a frightening, near-blind glide-pattern descent through the clouds, with ice rapidly accumulating on the windshield and the wings and the plane harder and harder to control.

At that point "there was dead silence in the airplane," Wheat remembers. "And it was freezing cold now [with no heat from the engine]. We were in casual clothes. My hands were just about numb."

The artificial horizon gauge and heading indicator were now useless, and soon other instruments, such as the air-speed indicator and altimeter, failed, too.

Trying to conserve the battery, Wheat was flying with nothing save his wits, the radio, his electric turn-and-bank indicator and a magnetic compass.

"We weren't really scared, but very apprehensive," Wheat says. "The thing is, you're really busy trying not to lose control of the aircraft. You don't think of `what-ifs' at this point."

The plane was now descending quickly, about 2,000 feet per minute, and was very unstable, in a severe pitch-and-roll mode.

Then it nearly stalled, until the veteran pilot lowered the nose and increased the air speed. At 5,000 feet, the plane lost all communication with Air Traffic Control.

In solid clouds, with an iced-up windshield, the two men could see only swatches of gray out the side windows, and soon visibility was gone there, too.

"It was like we were in a pitch-black room," Wheat says. "Only a room that's moving."

At 1,200 feet, the plane broke out of the clouds. But they were descending so rapidly that Wheat knew he'd never make the Mitchell airport.

With about a minute left before they hit the ground, the two men began looking around frantically for a place to crash-land.

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