By Margie Wuebker
Two Coldwater men walked away with scrapes and bruises after their single-engine plane made an emergency landing Tuesday afternoon in an Interstate 75 median in Michigan.
Pilot Mark Heinl, 45, and passenger Kevin Sanning, 37,
left Lakefield Airport near Montezuma earlier in the day bound for Oakland County International Airport in Holly, Mich., 45 miles northwest of Detroit.
"It was an absolutely wonderful trip until the engine started sputtering at 3,000 feet," Heinl told The Daily Standard this morning. "The engine actually quit at 2,000 feet and I attempted two restarts without success."
Heinl, a Mercer County Sheriff's deputy and a licensed pilot, knew he had one chance to land the red and white Piper Cherokee. "The plane does not fall from the sky; it glides toward the ground," he says. "I saw a gravel pit, a field and the interstate. I knew I had to remain calm if I wanted to go home again and see my family."
Michigan State Police noted the emergency landing occurred at 4:30 p.m., an especially busy time for traffic along the stretch between Detroit and Flint.
The aircraft skidded about 60 yards and came to rest on the northbound side median after striking a guardrail.
"We spun around in the median but we did not strike any vehicles," Heinl said. "The plane was torn up pretty good."
The plane, owned by Heinl and other members of the Lakefield Flyers, sustained damage to the left wing and nose.
State police shut down one lane of the expressway in each direction as emergency personnel cleared away a trail of debris.
Heinl and Sanning, a mechanic at Sanning Service Station in Coldwater, were en route to the Holly, Mich., area. Sanning planned to pick up a new Chevy Tahoe he had purchased for family use.
A preflight checklist had detected no problems and Heinl gave customary instructions to Sanning on what to do in the event of problems.
"The Piper Cherokee has only one door on the passenger side," the pilot explained. "He did everything I told him -- unlatch the handle above your head and the handle by your right leg."
Both men prayed as the plane closed in on the bumpy ground. They later spoke of a "presence" and a feeling that someone was on their shoulders.
"Very few pilots walk away from something like this," Heinl added. "We were treated at the scene for very, very minor injuries. I guess our time wasn't up yet."
The Coldwater man, who has been piloting and flying for several years, admits he paid particular interest to a recent plane crash near Rockford. He remembers looking at photographs and trying to determine what went wrong and that may have helped during his own emergency.
Sanning, who praised Heinl's calm demeanor and quick response to an emergency, was making his first flight and it certainly turned out more eventful than expected.
"I am not planning any more flights in a small plane or even a big plane at this point," he says. "The decision has nothing whatsoever to do with Mark."
Heinl, on the other hand, wants to get back in the cockpit as soon as possible, adding "It will do me no good to sit and wonder whether I can fly again. I have to go and do it."
The pair returned to Coldwater Tuesday night in Sanning's newly purchased vehicle. They had an opportunity to do a lot of talking. Sleep did not come easily for either man.
Investigators from the Federal Aviation Administration have not determined the cause of the engine problems as yet.