NEW SMYRNA BEACH — In an hourlong ordeal that resembled a scene from an action-adventure movie, cool flying and steady driving prevented a potential tragedy at New Smyrna Beach Municipal Airport on Friday morning.
Jason Messenger, a senior instructor with Epic Aviation in New Smyrna Beach, was flying with student pilot Kenneth Barrett. They were about to land shortly before 9 a.m. when there were indications the Cessna 172RG’s landing gear had not locked into place, according to a written statement from Epic officials.
After unsuccessfully trying to recycle the gear, then bump the malfunctioning right wheel into place by bouncing the aircraft’s working wheels off the tarmac, an alternative plan was needed.
As emergency crews stood by, Epic Aviation president Danny Perna got behind the wheel of a Jeep and with two passengers, rolled out to the runway. The idea was to race under the airplane as it flew low overhead and have someone tug the malfunctioning landing gear into place.
After two unsuccessful attempts, Perna and his team borrowed a 12-foot pole from firefighters. The plane made one more failed pass. Then an unidentified man reached out, extending the pole from the Jeep as it raced down the runway at about 65 mph. He made contact and nudged the landing gear into a locked position.
Messenger landed safely to the cheers of the gathered crowd. The plane was towed to the Epic hangar for inspection.
New Smyrna Beach control tower manager Chuck Criswell said he has seen pictures of such an event but never actually witnessed one.
“From the tower, it looked routine,” he said.
To witnesses on the ground, though, the mid-air repair was anything but ordinary.
“That was incredible,” New Smyrna Beach resident and witness William Shaw said. “Those guys in the Jeep are heroes.”
“That was movie star stuff,” New Smyrna Beach Police Officer Jason Reve said.