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Emergency landing on Mon/Fayette expressway leads to big bill for pilot

| Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
This small plane made an emergency landing on the Mon-Fayette Expressway on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013.

In August, Brownsville Area School District teachers Brian Nicholson and John Armel flew out of Rostraver Airport with Nicholson in the pilot's seat.

But just 10 minutes into the flight, a piece of the wooden propeller broke off, causing the plane to become unbalanced.

Nicholson, who has been flying for six years, told The Valley Independent at the time he broadcast a distress call on a radio frequency reserved for civilian air emergencies and received permission to land on the highway.

The plane landed at milepost 30, near U.S. 40 in Centerville.

Three months after his heroics, Nicholson received a $2,993.34 bill from the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission for overtime costs for workers who were on the scene all day waiting for the plane to be towed.

“It was definitely a surprise,” Nicholson said. “They told me in August that police filed a report and they were going to bill me for the man hours.”

Nicholson said at the time he thought that meant the state police would bill him for their time.

Nicholson said Turnpike officials asked for his insurance information at the time, but he declined to provide it without being told what he was being charged for. State officials said he would be informed of those changes in due time.

On Wednesday, Nicholson received a voice mail that warned him of the impending bill that arrived the next day. He was given just 30 days to pay.

“I'm more in shock than anything,” Nicholson said. “I plan to find a lawyer that would help in this situation.”

Nicholson said the Airline Owners and Pilots Association provided him with the names of a couple of lawyers who would advocate for him.

Nicholson said Turnpike officials told him they routinely bill motorists for man hours of work during an accident. Nicholson doubted that claim, adding he felt it was wrong to bill him under that precept.

“I wasn't an accident,” Nicholson said. “It was the avoidance of an accident.”

At the time of the incident, Armel said Nicholson touched down on the main line and taxied to the on-ramp from U.S. 40 to the expressway.

The plane was taken to the Pennsylvania Turnpike's Searights Maintenance Facility, located along the expressway.

Nicholson told Valley Independent news partner WPXI he had already paid $1,000 to have the plane taken apart and towed before getting the bill for almost $3,000.

“I had a propeller there. I had a mechanic there. I could've been out of that area in 15 minutes,” he said.

According to WPXI, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission released the following statement: “The commission has a duty to provide a safe roadway for customers and emergency responders, and we certainly have a right, if not an obligation, to recover our costs in doing so. A number of turnpike maintenance-department employees had to be mobilized to protect the safety of the pilot and the traveling public — our customers. To make sure nobody would be injured and to keep traffic moving, Turnpike employees helped to close parts of the highway while abiding federal guidelines on the personnel and equipment needed for such closures. They assisted in safely getting the plane to a location where it could be disassembled and transported off turnpike property.

“It is standard practice for the turnpike to seek reparations after an incident that necessitates involvement of our personnel. How we're handling this is no different than how we handle similar accidents involving a car or truck, and it's comparable to processes used by other highway operators.

“The decision to prohibit the pilot from taking off on the turnpike was made in the interest of customer safety and also because of the additional costs we would have incurred to shut down the road in both directions during takeoff.”

Nicholson said he did not feel unsafe, noting he had taxied his plane 20 feet away from the highway.

“I've seen cars parked along the highway for days and no one babysat them,” Nicholson said.

Nicholson said he plans to fight the charges, but he asked for the public's help.

“I'm asking the public to use their voices,” Nicholson said. “This just isn't me. It's against every pilot who will possibly be flying.”

Nicholson said he is considered that in an emergency situation, pilots will reconsider making a safe landing on a highway.

He noted that the day after his landing, a pilot crashed into a Connecticut home, killing four.

“That's a much worse outcome than me landing on a paved road and not damaging a single thing,” Nicholson said.

Chris Buckley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-684-2642 or

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