Pilot fined for landing plane on the Mon-Fayette Expressway

| Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013, 12:08 a.m.

Three months after Brian Nicholson deftly piloted a damaged single-engine airplane and made a delicate emergency landing on the Mon-Fayette Expressway, he was shocked to receive a bill for nearly $3,000 from the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission for landing on the highway.

“I find this appalling,” Nicholson said on Friday. “We're trained as pilots to make a decision in emergency situations and not second-guess those decisions.”

Nicholson, an art teacher at Brownsville High School who lives in Upper Speers, was flying his vintage 1946 Universal Stinson airplane on Aug. 5. Accompanying him was fellow teacher and pilot John Armel from Vestaburg.

“We were just out for a leisurely flight,” Nicholson said.

Minutes after takeoff, the plane developed trouble — a chunk of the wooden propeller broke off, and the two pilots, seeing nowhere else to land the plane, chose the expressway.

Nicholson, a pilot for six years, landed the plane “between a car and a tractor-trailer” while avoiding power lines and highway signs. The plane landed at milepost 30, near U.S. Route 40 in Centerville.

A day after the incident, Nicholson told reporters, “There wasn't a whole lot in the world we could do at that time. We knew we had to get on the ground as soon as possible to stay alive, and this is the best place we could be.

“We didn't damage a thing,” he said. “We didn't damage the highway, any vehicles or the plane.”

The commission, which had initially billed Nicholson $1,000 for towing the plane from the scene, added $2,993.34 for dozens of man-hours spent removing the plane from the road, which the pilot deemed unnecessary.

Nicholson said he had a mechanic report to the scene, where he planned to replace the damaged prop, ask police to “stop traffic for no more than five minutes,” and fly away, a process that would have taken less than 30 minutes.

He said he had OKs from the state police and the Federal Aviation Administration “to fly out of there,” he said. “But the Turnpike Commission said I wasn't touching the plane.”

The commission said in a statement on Friday that “the decision to prohibit the pilot from taking off ... 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.”

The commission issued a statement regarding the fine.

“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.

“This was an emergency, and someone was going to die if the right decision wasn't made,” Nicholson said, “Then to assess fines, that's just wrong.”

Chuck Brittain is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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