There was probably tension in the cabin of a Cessna T41C last April when it made a surprise landing on the Maine Turnpike in Litchfield, but no one has said so.

“I heard the engine quit, and then I heard the sound of wind over the wings,” Randall Greenleaf, who was on the ground, told the Sun Journal that day. “It was just a ‘shhh’ sound from the wings as it drifted overhead.”

The plane then made, by all accounts, a perfect landing on the Turnpike and rolled into a conveniently located rest area.

When a Sun Journal reporter arrived, nobody would talk about what had just happened.

Eventually, another Warden Service pilot arrived, traffic on the Turnpike was stopped and the plane took off from the roadway. Warden Service Col. Joel Wilkinson later said it was “highly likely” the small Cessna had run out of fuel.

Yet, pilot Dan Dufault, a 10-year veteran of the Warden Service, soon filed a preliminary report with the Federal Aviation Administration stating, “Aircraft conducting survey work, had mechanical issues and landed safely on Interstate 95 North at mile marker 98.”

Advertisement

So, what really happened? A bad fuel pump? A gas line? A carburetor problem?

Or, could Dufault have simply run out of gas, a serious and sometimes fatal lapse of attention.

About this time the Warden Service spokesperson closed the book on the subject and refused to answer any more questions.

The use of written checklists is drummed into the heads of pilots in training, and separate lists are often used for pre-flight, flight and pre-landing.

Checklists for specific aircraft are provided in the aircraft’s flight manual, including the one for the Cessna T41C Dufault was flying.

Flight controls — Free and correct.

Advertisement

Instruments and radios — Checked and set.

Landing gear position lights — Checked.

Altimeter — Set.

Fuel gauges — Checked.

And so forth.

Of course, if it really had been a mechanical problem, Dufault had done an exceptional job of resolving a very dangerous situation.

Advertisement

On the other hand, if he had failed to check the fuel gauge before taking off or in the air, his mistake had created the dangerous situation.

About 30 people are killed each year in “fuel management incidents,” according to the FAA.

Without the lucky proximity of the Maine Turnpike and light traffic, Dufault and his passenger could easily have been killed.

Had Dufault been a hero, like Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who landed his damaged plane safely in 2009 in New York’s Hudson River without loss of life?

Or had he been a reckless and inattentive pilot?

We may never know for sure what happened, but on July 17 the Sun Journal requested the aircraft’s maintenance records from the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Department.

Advertisement

On Aug. 29 we received the records, which showed the aircraft was inspected after the incident and the fuel gauges were accurate and the fuel system operating properly.

Just before we received the records, Dufault announced on his Facebook page that he had resigned from the Warden Service.

That’s unfortunate, especially this week as Maine wardens and pilots are working long days in mountainous terrain to find a lost Appalachian Trail hiker.

Wardens and other search and rescue people have worked from sunrise to sunset, so far without success, to find hiker Geraldine Largay near Sunday River.

The high expectations and standards we have for pilots is admirable in a society that tolerates so much imprecision and recklessness in other dangerous situations.

We’re thinking of the man who climbs behind the wheel of a car after having a half-dozen drinks, or the woman weaving in and out of heavy traffic while holding a cell phone to her ear.

In some endeavors, simple mistakes often have deadly consequences, a lesson from professional aviation, and a good one for the rest of us as well.

[email protected]

The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.