GREEN CREEK - Landon Lucas, an 18-year-old spending his first summer in New Jersey, is back flying the local skies after captivating the nation with an emergency landing near Ocean City.
The teen, who's originally from Jackson, Wyoming, became noteworthy for landing a 1946 banner plane on the Route 52 Causeway in between traffic around 12:30 p.m. July 19, with bystanders capturing photos that flooded social media feeds. The landing was featured on CNN and ABC’s World News Tonight.
He left the cramped single-man cockpit unharmed. A few motorists were the victims of a minor traffic accident while trying to take pictures of the once-in-a-lifetime scene, but others on the bridge were unscathed, as well. Since that afternoon, some have recognized his face and name, such as when he was visiting the Rio Grande Jersey Shore Federal Credit Union branch and the staff recognized him while checking his driver's license. Despite the notoriety, Lucas remains humble about his landing, enjoying every day of summer 2021 as a teenage banner plane pilot.
Since the incident, he's returned to flying banner ads, wasting no time besides July 20 to recuperate.
"I wanted to get back in sooner," said Lucas, who flies for Cape May Aerial Ads, which recently purchased Paramount Air Service, a banner ad company, started in 1945, that is "the nation’s oldest and largest aerial advertising firm," according to its website.
"You see people have something like that happen and they just quit flying for a while, and they never get back into it," he continued.
Lucas said July 19 started as a typical day, where he and his coworkers prepare the planes for their daily runs. He was flying near Steel Pier, in Atlantic City, when his aircraft began undergoing what he described as partial engine failure, shifting between gears and idle.
Bader Field, which neighbors the former Atlantic City Surf stadium, was an option for an emergency landing, but Lucas said he felt the engine was stable and continued flying southward, where the flight turned grim near northern Ocean City.
"I had total engine failure, so the propellor completely stopped," Lucas said. "It's basically just a heavy glider at that point."
As he approached the Ocean City Municipal Airport, Lucas was faced with a choice - shoot for the airport or find an open spot on the Ninth Street Bridge.
"I had enough experience in that airplane to look at the airport and say, 'There's not a chance in hell I'm making that airport,'" Lucas said, regarding his choice to land on the bridge.
Lucas said traffic near the bottom of the bridge leaving Ocean City provided enough time to land the plane safely on its westbound side to the captivation of onlookers. Emergency personnel arrived soon after, with Lucas out of the cockpit snapping several photos, one of which he sent to his mom.
An investigation determined the carburetor heat box suffered a small tear, causing the piece to malfunction and leading to total engine loss. Lucas described the piece as something that allows the aircraft's pilot to regulate temperature to the carburetor in the event of ice buildup. The tear caused a chain reaction that led to the engine being starved of fuel.
The piece is still at the hangar, on a table outside.
"It's something I've always thought of, but I guess I think about it more now that it actually happened," Lucas said. "I always thought, 'Engine failures are so rare, and they're so well maintained that nothing could ever happen.’"
"It wasn't even a big part that broke," he added. "It was a tiny weld, something smaller than a penny."
Lucas' journey as a pilot began when he was 14, when he was introduced to the profession through a discovery program while living in Wyoming. Sights outside his window as a commercial airline passenger generated his interest to pursue the program, where he was given one-on-one instruction and obtained live flying time. The discovery program inspired him to pursue a pilot's license and he’s been flying for nearly two and a half years.
He credits John Koehler most for gaining his ability to safely land an aircraft. Koehler, who lives in Afton, Wyoming, teaches small-aircraft flight instruction, and Lucas was under his guidance over a year ago, where he practiced emergency landings. Koehler found out that his lessons were successful from another pilot who saw Lucas' landing on the news.
"It's absolutely no surprise to me that he was able to work it out," Koehler said. "Landon was an excellent student."
"It's to his credit," he added.
In Wyoming, Lucas said he usually flies at higher altitudes in the mountains, but he's enjoying his time flying lower along the ocean and the friendships he's made.
When he's not in the air, Lucas spends his mornings at the Paramount Airport, a private airport off Route 47, in Green Creek, where the five-pilot aerial ad crew lives. The airport is bordered by farmland and several lines of trees, and finding it may be hard if one is driving too fast.
The team spends their morning using their manpower to move planes in and out of the hangar, preparing them for their day along the Jersey Shore. The planes then take off from a grassland runway bordering the Delaware Bay.
The pilots also enjoy downtime at night or trips down Route 47 into the Wildwoods, like a small family trip. Lucas also enjoys rides on his red Honda motorcycle when he’s not in the air.
Lucas plans to continue his tenure in piloting. He's earned an associate degree in aeronautics at 18, and would like to pilot planes for a private charter company.
Despite being from a town Google says is over 2,000 miles away from Paramount Airport, Lucas said he loves the area and has enjoyed his first summer in New Jersey. He's likely going to return to the Equality State for winter, but he's open to returning to Cape May County and the job he's enjoyed.
"Who could complain; you wake up every day and go fly a plane," he said.
To contact Eric Conklin, email email@example.com.