Caroline Paul on Her First Emergency Landing
When the engine light flicks off, do you listen to the voice that says it's time to panic or the one urging you to calmly set the plane down?
When the engine on my ultralight cut out, I was supposed to be ready. Pilots aren’t pessimists, but we practice worst-case scenarios over and over. I’d been flying for years, yet I hadn’t practiced for that sucker punch of adrenaline, the way my hair stood on end, the shock of the sudden silence.
Training does kick in. A Captain Kirk–like voice quickly slapped my frazzled nerves, bringing them to attention, and then gave cool, calm commands: Engine out. Option one, attempt restart. Option two, don’t get distracted, look for landing place.
I went for option two. Really, you sure? yelped a competing inner voice, Fear. She’s sure, Captain Kirk snapped back. He was right. I was flying low over California hills dotted with scrubby trees and granite in a rinky-dink machine—just a seat on wheels suspended under a hang-glider wing and powered by a lawn-mower motor. Now all that was left was a dubious glide ratio and the promise of an open field. Kirk reminded me that I had clocked a suitable landing zone before the engine quit, because that’s what you do as a pilot. Always look for somewhere to put down, Just in Case. Now Just in Case was here, and the spot I’d chosen was one you picked only when you thought you wouldn’t really need it: an incline hemmed in by trees. I frantically looked again.
OK, there—a field between two hills, seemingly clean of rocks and flat enough. But is it? whined Fear. Shut up, Captain Kirk said, then reminded me to set up like it was any other runway—downwind leg, base leg, final approach. Dropping fast, I checked the field again. It suddenly looked pocked and uneven. Focus, said Kirk. You’re fucked, said Fear.
The wheels touched down perfectly. There were no rocks. But there were deep ruts in the hard ground. The tiny ultralight thudded and bounced but remained gamely intact, then came to a stop. I got out on shaky legs, straightening my flight suit, pulling off my helmet. What to do next? Finally, we all agreed: Kneel on the ground, dummy, and exhale a big thank you.
Caroline Paul is the author of The Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure.