Editha Merrill Flies the Hard Way—Without Lessons

updated 12/12/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/12/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

Move over Chuck Yeager. Editha Merrill, 78-year-old widow and great-grandmother, has just proved that she too deserves a place in wild-blue-yonder lore. With no previous flying time under her belt, Merrill took over the controls of a Piper Cherokee from the four-seater's dying pilot and, with some helpful talk from an instructor flying along beside her, brought the aircraft to a safe landing at Arizona's Luke Air Force Base. And fly-boys say carrier deck landings are tough!

"I've never been so frightened," says Merrill. "I could imagine how people feel when somebody points a gun at 'em. My lips were dry, but I didn't have any moisture on my tongue to lick them." The emergency struck while Merrill and three neighbors from Lake Pleasant Mobile Home Estates—Dorothy Matthews, 65, Jane Turner, 59, and her pilot husband, Bruce, 57—were winging to breakfast at Stretch's Restaurant, a popular fly-in spot at Sedona Airport, 97 air miles northwest of Phoenix. About an hour into the flight, Bruce, a pilot since World War II, suffered a heart attack and slumped unconscious at the controls of his plane. While his wife, Jane (who'd had six hours of emergency flight instruction) called in a Mayday, Merrill, in the co-pilot's seat, took the wheel.

Jack Seeley, 44, a flight instructor at Sedona Airport, flew to the rescue. "It's happened any number of times," he says, "but under these conditions a plane has come down successfully, to my knowledge, only once." Fortunately, Editha Merrill kept her head and a light touch on the controls. At one point she inadvertently flew into clouds, which often sends untrained fliers into a spin, but Editha came out level and on course. "He told me what to do and I tried to do it," says Merrill. "Jack is a living doll. Like I told him, after my son, he comes next." Jack Seeley had visions of a crash, but after two hours flying at an average 80 mph, Merrill touched down with nothing worse than a hard bump.

Though Turner did not survive his heart attack, Merrill and her two companions left the plane weak-kneed but unscathed. A retired accounting clerk who once made a living raising crickets for fish bait, Merrill soon found herself on a plane to New York for interviews on ABC's Good Morning America and with NBC's David Letterman. "I was on three planes, and I met each captain," she says. "And each one asked me if I wanted to come up and land 'em. I said, 'No thanks!' "

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