Encouragement flowed soon after a picture of Sierra Lund was posted on the Peachtree City Police Department’s Facebook feed that showed the young pilot near an upturned Cessna 150 after it took a divot out of the No. 11 tee box at Planterra Ridge Golf Club and collapsed its nose gear. Lt. Mark Brown said the accident was under investigation and could not provide any comments.
“We’re definitely happy with the outcome,” Lund’s father, Kevin, told AOPA. “She made all the critical and correct decisions at the right time.”
There’s much more to the story than the 1,200 shares, 2,000 “likes,” and nearly 700 comments generated by the picture.
The area just south of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport’s Class B airspace is peppered with private airfields, grass landing strips, and lakes, although in recent years it has also seen rapid development. It is home to many aviators, including Lund’s dad, who works as a mechanic for a large commercial airline based at the nation’s busiest airport.
He said Sierra was smitten by aviation since she was a child and often accompanied him in his Citabria for sunset flights over the Georgia pine forests. More recently, they fly a restored Cessna 140.
“We’re airport junkies,” Kevin said. “We’re either polishing the airplanes or waiting for cooler weather” to visit nearby grass strips including Big T, Brook Bridge, or Flying Frog.
With so much aviation surrounding her, Lund decided to enroll at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Worldwide’s online campus and become an airline pilot. She already completed most of her college core courses with a dual-enrollment program at Clayton State University near Atlanta and officially began flight training a year ago. She is majoring in aviation business management because she “figured it was the fastest and cheapest way to go. And that way I can stay at home with all the airplanes, or at least stay close to them.”
The McIntosh High School graduate had just performed a straight out departure from Falcon Field’s Runway 31 and “was switching my radios over to Atlanta approach” when she said “the engine just sputtered” as the aircraft neared 400 feet agl. “The rpms dropped, then they kind of went back up and then it [the engine] just quit.”
That’s when her instruction kicked in. She has logged about 45 hours of dual and practiced “power-off 180s and engine failures all the time but I’ve always had someone pull the throttle when I’m over the runway and then landed on the runway.”
This time it was different. “I didn’t really have time to freak out and I figured I’d land the airplane anywhere I could.”
The young pilot knew she didn’t have enough altitude to make the 180-degree turn back to the airfield behind her so she “looked for a place to land and tried not to stall the airplane.” A lake immediately in front of her complicated the decision.
Lund pointed her aircraft at a clearing because she “didn’t want to go swimming in the lake below me.” Golfers playing a nearby hole scrambled out of the way as the Cessna glided down. “In my mind I was thinking, ‘I hope I don’t hit the trees.’”
She said she landed fine but “was coming in really fast. When I came in, I hit a hill and it launched me back in the air and then a wingtip contacted a tree and that spun me around.” When the Cessna 150 contacted the ground “it hit on the nose” and collapsed the front gear. After the aircraft bounced to a halt, Lund said she released her safety harness and “kind of fell out of the airplane.” By that time a high school friend playing the golf course had already called 911 although he didn’t know it was Lund.
Kevin complimented his daughter and explained that she had little time to react. He said an NTSB examination determined that a cracked intake valve lodged itself in the exhaust manifold and triggered a rapid set of events that led to the engine failure.
“Once that intake valve lets lose you have reverse flow through the engine and the other three cylinders get completely starved [of fuel],” he said. “That cylinder is still producing some pressure but it’s back-pressuring the induction system and putting reverse flow though the carburetor,” literally choking the engine. “It’s so unusual to have an intake valve break. I flew the 150 literally two and a half hours before Sierra did and it ran perfectly for me.”
As a parent, he said, “every time she went up it would always weigh on my mind if she’d make those decisions,” but her quick reaction under pressure “sealed the deal in my mind.”
The family has always been aviation enthusiasts. “I kind of got the bug early on and became an aircraft mechanic by trade,” Kevin said. “I recently bought a couple of airplanes and got my [pilot] license. Then Sierra became interested and the next thing you know she got the desire to get her license too.”
She was “at the airport almost every day” and her father said Lund was thrilled when she began flight training. “She has more of a mechanical mind and can explain how an engine works.”
While some of her graduating McIntosh friends received cars or trucks as presents, Lund’s dad instead handed her keys to a blue-and-white vintage Cessna 140.
“That was my graduation present,” she said. “It’s pretty awesome. I was learning in the 150 and my dad has a Citabria. I just love taildraggers, they’re just a lot more fun.”
The two plan to fly the Cessna 140 to Wisconsin for EAA AirVenture 2016 and then camp out together. “This will be my first year and I’m excited,” she said.
When asked what she would change if she had to do it all over again, Lund said she would “probably put flaps in if I had time but I didn’t really have that much time. It felt like I was landing perfectly fine but I was just coming in really fast.” Her advice for other students facing a similar emergency would be to “fly the airplane until it can’t fly any more, that’s pretty much it, and stay calm.”
Taking a break from scheduling his daughter’s television and newspaper interview requests, Lund said, “She’s fearless, nothing scares her.”