Deadly day avoided at Cape airport

Saturday, February 3, 2007
Sheldon Stone made an emergency landing at Cape Girardeau Regional Airport early Friday. He and his co-pilot depressurized the plane when the windshield shattered, but they then lost consciousness. The tail damage occurred while they were unconscious. (Kit Doyle)

The twin-engine plane was diving toward the ground Friday morning at a speed of well over 400 miles per hour. Its pilot and co-pilot were unconscious from oxygen deprivation.

The plane's nose was tilted down and in about 15 seconds would collide with the earth northwest of Cape Girardeau.

Death seemed certain.

But pilot Sheldon Stone and co-pilot Adam Moore are alive today.

"We must have had angels on our shoulders, that's all I can say," said Stone, who flies the plane for the owner of Summit Bank of Arkansas and has about 4,200 hours of flying experience.

Shortly after the plane took off from Rogers, Ark., en route to Shenandoah, Va., the windshield of the cockpit shattered. The pilots, who were the only people on board, don't know what caused that, but they immediately depressurized the cabin.

"We were both worried the windshield would blow out. If that happened, we would be dead immediately," Stone said.

Stone and Moore took the plane off autopilot and reached for the "heavy-duty" oxygen masks mounted on the plane's ceiling.

Stone twisted a valve to begin the flow of oxygen. The pressurized tank in the rear should have promptly started because the plane was above 12,500 feet.

But it didn't.

So Stone pulled on straps at the side of the mask, a type of manual override to force air flow.

Still nothing.

"We were both getting drunk really fast. I remember thinking, really slowly, 'Hey, I'm not getting any oxygen, what's wrong here?' But I was so loony already at that point I couldn't even solve the problem if it could be solved," he said. "I just sort of thought to myself, 'I've got to hurry,' but everything was fading."

For the next 60 seconds everything went black.

Over the course of that time, the plane plummeted from 27,000 feet to 7,000 feet.

Then Stone got a rush of blood to the head. He woke up.

"My first thought, I mean, you're still so loony, I remember thinking, 'Why is this plane going so fast?'" he said.

Stone grabbed the throttle and pulled the nose skyward.

The craft stopped falling, but a great deal of damage had been done. Somewhere during the descent, the left portion of the tail, which houses the elevator and horizontal stabilizer, ripped off. Each wing was warped in an upside-down V shape due to the G-force exerted on them.

Stone radioed air-traffic control in Memphis and was told the closest airport was Cape Girardeau. He was exhilarated to be alive, but quickly had to get serious.

"I thought I was home free, but then I realize how hard it was to get the plane under control and I started to think, 'Wait a minute. This thing isn't over yet. I've got to find a way to land.'"

Just keeping the plane horizontal was a struggle. When Stone accelerated, pressure pushed the nose upward, but when the pilot slowed down the craft, its nose pitched downward and the pilot had to yank it back.

Eventually, they decided on a speed of 160 knots and began easing the plane in for a landing.

Within five minutes of the call to Memphis, the plane was visible at Cape Girardeau Regional Airport. It landed without incident and before the emergency responders could reach the scene.

"I'd say it was a supremely good landing," said chief controller Larry Davis. "I see student pilots make worse landings every day."

And when they saw the battered, broken plane, their jaws dropped.

"This is one of the most incredible stories I've ever heard," said airport manager Bruce Loy.

Today, the plane sits off the landing strip marked off by yellow tape. Its wings are warped and engine likely fried. It likely won't ever fly again, said airport officials.

But for those who it carried to safety, the plane means something special.

"That plane has Christian background," Stone said.

The plane's former owner was an Assembly of God Christian association. Its registration number, N777AG, had biblical significance combining a holy number and an abbreviation for Assembly of God.

The church kept the number when they sold the plane to Stone's boss but suggested the new owners might replace it with "AJ" for "Assembly of Jesus."

They did, and Friday the little King Air 200 pulled off a miracle.

"I'm just thanking God. I'm very thankful to be alive today," Stone said.

tgreaney@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 245

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