Passenger Crash-Lands Plane at Martha’s Vineyard After Pilot Emergency

From a Washington Post story by Timothy Bella headlined “Passenger crash-lands plane at Martha’s Vineyard after pilot emergency”:

A Connecticut woman took over the controls of a small airplane after the pilot had a medical emergency, with both of them surviving after she crash-landed at Martha’s Vineyard Airport.

Upon final approach on a flight from Westchester, N.Y., the 79-year-old male pilot was incapacitated by a medical condition onboard the 2006 Piper Meridian Turbo Prop, a six-seat plane, according to the Massachusetts State Police. That’s when the only passenger onboard, a 68-year-old woman, scrambled into action in an attempt to land the plane in West Tisbury, Mass.

“His female passenger took the controls and attempted to land the aircraft, which resulted in a hard landing outside the runway that caused the aircraft’s left wing to break in half,” the MSP said. The passenger landed the plane “on its belly with no landing gear” about 3:15 p.m., according to the West Tisbury Police Department.

Both the pilot and passenger, who have not been publicly identified, survived the crash landing and were transported to a hospital, authorities said. The passenger was uninjured and released from Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, according to state police. The pilot, who is also from Connecticut, was transferred by medical helicopter about 100 miles away to a Boston hospital and is in “serious life-threatening condition,” the MSP said.

The single-engine airplane was largely intact, but was several hundred feet off the runway and in the grass when it crash-landed, the Vineyard Gazette reported. A short video from the Martha’s Vineyard Times shows the crashed aircraft in the grass with its left wing snapped off.

The aircraft involved in Saturday’s crash is registered under Access Yacht Sales, a company based in Norwalk, Conn., according to FAA records. Randolph Bonnist, 79, of Norwalk, is listed as a corporate pilot for the company on his LinkedIn profile. Neither Bonnist nor his wife immediately responded to requests for comment.

Pilots and aviation experts have for years soundly rejected the idea that anyone can land a plane in an emergency situation without experience. That belief is frequently cited as a classic example of the Dunning-Kruger effect — a cognitive bias where people overestimate their ability or knowledge in an area in which they have no expertise.

A January YouGov poll of more than 20,000 adults in the United States found that about 1 in 3 Americans are confident that they could safely land an airplane in an emergency situation, relying only on the assistance of air traffic control. Nearly half of the men polled believed they could land a plane without experience, while only 1 in 5 women thought so, according to YouGov.

Experienced pilots have said there is “a zero percent chance of someone pulling that off,” and it is rare that an inexperienced passenger can land a plane in an emergency situation. It happened in May 2022, when a male passenger with “no idea how to fly” was able to land a plane with the help of air traffic control in Palm Beach, Fla., after the pilot became “incapacitated.” Despite reiterating to the air traffic controller, “I don’t know how to do anything,” the man safely landed the plane.

The Saturday landing came around the anniversary of the plane crash at Martha’s Vineyard that killed John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife and his sister-in-law in 1999. On July 16, 1999, a Piper Saratoga aircraft carrying Kennedy, his wife, Carolyn Bessette, and sister-in-law Lauren Bessette crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off Martha’s Vineyard. The NTSB investigation concluded that Kennedy, who was certified to fly only in clear weather, suffered from spatial disorientation that caused him to lose control of the plane as the aircraft descended over the ocean at night.

The scene was cleared Saturday, and the Piper Meridian aircraft was removed to a secure location at the airport, according to the MSP. The crash landing caused Saturday flights to Boston, New York and Washington to be delayed for hours, the Gazette reported. The primary commercial runway has since reopened, and normal operations have resumed at the airport during the busy summer season.

Timothy Bella is a staff writer and editor for the General Assignment team, focusing on national news. His work has appeared in outlets such as Esquire, the Atlantic, New York magazine and the Undefeated.

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