There I was, tooling along in my small single engine cloth-covered Piper Super Cub, minding my own business while towing an aerial banner through the sky low over Staten Island.

The date was January 15, 2010. The reason I know this has to do with the purpose of my mission. It was the 1 year anniversary of the Miracle on the Hudson, the day Captain Sullenberger made local heroes of pilots everywhere. A client, wanting to remind people how near to death and eternity we all may be at any time, had commissioned this banner to ask viewers whether they knew what their eternal destiny would be. An irony, as it would turn out.  Sully, some others from that flight, and a cadre of media folks would be gathered to commemorate the successful water landing, and my job was to find their boat and show them the banner.

Well the morning had been a bit of a rush, and I hadn’t had time to properly make myself a sandwich, so I had thrown the ingredients into a bag and rushed out the door. After sweeping the ponderous banner into the air, I began on my slow way toward the Verrazano Narrows suspension bridge far in the distance, and my workload tapered off. This provided an excellent opportunity to have a bite of lunch, so there I was, flying with my knees and spreading some mayo when I heard a loud BANG, the cockpit started to get smoky, and the engine list a lot of power.

One thing you should know about a Piper Super Cub towing a large banner with low power: it doesn’t glide. It drops.

So picture me there, control stick between my knees, half-built sandwich in one hand, mayonnaise covered knife in the other. I was frozen for what felt like an eternity with a problem I never thought I’d have, “What do I do with my sandwich?”. At some point the angel of logic descended into my clouded head and told me that it didn’t much matter what I did with it, and so I threw it unceremoniously over my shoulder turned my will toward the emergency.

The propeller was still turning, but I didn’t know how long that would last. I was directly overhead a large freeway, and losing altitude fast. The good part was that I had been here before, and had at that time noted a good site for an emergency landing, should that ever be required, a valuable use of time as it turned out.  The target landing site was a landfill that seemed to have little in the way of obstructions, and what for a Super Cub equates to plenty of space.

Since I knew where I was going, I made my turn toward the landfill immediately. The wind was unfortunate, it was a crosswind pushing me away from the site, and even more importantly, pushing the banner back toward the freeway. At some point I’d cut the banner free, but I had a tricky balance to work out. I needed to prevent draping a one hundred foot banner across heavy NYC traffic causing untold chaos, while still conserving enough altitude to pull off the landing on my target. I had maybe five hundred feet to work with and I was going down fast, but I was determined. When I felt I could wait no longer, I pulled the lever and felt the satisfying lurch in my seat. I was still moving earthward, but this could at least be called a glide.

Turning my eyes back to the landfill, I noted a pickup truck in the middle of my planned landing site with vaguely deferred concern, and swapped the radio over to emergency frequency.  “November five seven two six yankee, PAN PAN PAN, engine failure, landing on a landfill on Staten Island”. Immediately some old curmudgeon responded, no doubt on instinct, “You’re on guard. This is a restricted frequency.” I came right back, “This is what guard is for!”. Newark International is not far away and Air Traffic control came on the radio asking for more details, but at that point I was on my final approach,  so I told him I was landing, killed the electrical system, and concentrated.

Didn’t know where the pickup had gone, but he wasn’t in my way anymore, so I went for that landing with relish. I shut off the laboring engine the second my main wheels touched ground, not a bad landing either. I hastily unbuckled and hopped out of the airplane just as the pickup truck pulled up. Out came an astonished Municipal worker who wanted to shake my hand, and kept repeating “That was amazing!”.

Needless to say, it was a long day for me. A news chopper showed up with amazing speed, having been dispatched by Newark Air Traffic Control to come find me. The first cop on the scene apparently suspected me of some unimaginable devilry, and wouldn’t be talked down. Despairing, I finally walked him to the other side of the airplane, pointed to the missing cylinder head and the jagged swath of engine oil painting the entire side of the aircraft. I deadpanned “It shouldn’t be like this.” and I think that settled it for him.

Must have been a slow day on Staten Island, because before very long, the landfill was covered with NYPD and FDNY vehicles of various types, and I kept getting pulled from one Chief to another to explain the situation in the same exact words. Finally a group of guys from the Federal Aviation Administration came to my rescue in a helicopter. They got me sequestered, took my report, and kept the cops, fire guys, and reporters away. Too bad they couldn’t keep the hunger away.

I guiltily ate the sandwich.

Since then I’ve enjoyed thinking about how this might have gone down differently if the cylinder head had held out for just a little bit longer. There would be Sully and company on the boat in the frigid Hudson, watching me actually re-enact his feat of the previous year, albeit at a smaller scale, and thinking “Is this a joke?”.