A small prop plane made an emergency landing at Aspen/Pitkin County Airport yesterday morning after its propeller fell off and an oil leak coated its windshield, compounding the problem by causing nearly zero visibility as the pilot was landing.
“It’s about as serious as it gets,” said the pilot, Aspenite Barry Cox, who added that he was confident the whole time in his ability to land the plane safely.
The single-engine Piper Malibu, with Cox and three passengers aboard, was en route to Denver on Wednesday morning. They were about seven miles from the Aspen airport, near Red Table Mountain, when Cox and passenger Stan Cheo, who was sitting in the co-pilot seat, noticed oil squirting onto the windshield. Thinking it was a minor oil leak, Cox decided to turn the aircraft around and got clearance from the Aspen tower to land third in line after two other incoming aircraft.
As Cox was turning back, those aboard heard a loud bang but couldn’t tell what it was because at that point oil was completely covering the windshield. The oil pressure gauge dropped and “you could just feel the difference” in the noise in the cabin, said Cheo, who nevertheless said that Cox’s sense of calm prevailed and kept everyone else calm.
Cleared for an emergency landing ahead of the other aircraft, Cox glided the plane in, landing about halfway down the runway and stopping safely. It had been about eight to 10 minutes since he noticed the initial problem, and at some point, he said, the engine failed because he landed without it. It was only after landing that he found out the plane’s propeller had fallen off.
“The hardest part wasn’t losing the prop,” said Cox, who has 7,400 flying hours and considers himself an experienced pilot. “The hardest part was landing without any visibility. I landed faster and longer than I wanted to, but you don’t get another chance” in situations like that.
Further investigation may lead to more details, but Cox believes the crank shaft that connects the propeller failed, causing the increasingly serious oil leak. That area holds 8 quarts of oil, he said, and at first when it was a small trickle he thought it might have been a broken seal.
Cox had no doubt that he could glide all the way back to the airport, but “had we been farther out we would not have made it back to Aspen,” said Cheo, a Woody Creek resident. “I’m glad I was in the plane with him. He’s an amazing pilot.”
Cheo also credits airport staff for doing everything they could to bring the plane in safely. And although he stayed fairly calm, “it was a near death experience so a lot of things cross through your mind,” he said. “I didn’t know if I would see my family again. It’s sort of after the fact that it really shakes you up. … This is going to take some time to sort out. Luckily I’m here to speak about it.”
The runway was closed for eight minutes after Cox landed at 10:10 a.m., according to a report issued by the airport. The plane had some damage to the nose where the propeller had ripped off, but was otherwise unscathed, and was towed off the runway, according to airport director of aviation Jim Elwood.
“It was quite an exceptional job for the pilot to land,” said Elwood.