In Trouble Aloft, a Pilot Flies His Crippled Plane into the Good Hands of a Car-Borne Ground Crew

updated 04/01/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/01/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

Uh-oh! When pilot Scott Gordon, 25, lowered his landing gear over the St. Augustine, Fla. airport, a glance at his instrument panel told him he had a serious problem. Instead of three lights glowing green to assure him that all three landing wheels were down and locked, Gordon saw just two. Hoping it was only a dud bulb, he plugged in a substitute while circling over the field. No dice. Gordon got on the radio to explain his emergency situation to airport manager Jim Moser, 34, an old pal and another stunt flier. Moser hopped into his own plane and went up to eyeball the problem. Sure enough, the right wing wheel on Gordon's aircraft, a single-engine Piper Turbo Arrow, had descended only partway. Back on the ground Moser decided to try a trick his father, also a stunt pilot, had used in air shows. He got a truck towing a long flatbed trailer to drive down the runway while Gordon tried to make a landing alongside, using the trailer as a crutch for his right wing. The plan was abandoned because the truck couldn't match the crippled plane's 90-plus mph speed.

But Moser wasn't ready to admit defeat. Unless he came up with something ingenious, his friend would have to bring the plane in for a wheels-up belly landing, risking possible injury to Gordon and approximately $15,000 damage to the plane. Moser next turned to a crew of kindred spirits adventurous enough to apply another stunt solution to this real-life crisis. He gathered up airport mechanics Joe Lippo, 26, and Rhett Radford, 24, and piled them into his car, a 1982 Audi with a retractable sunroof. Then he radioed Gordon and told him to fly down almost on top of the car as it roared down the runway. While Gordon held the plane in hair-raising formation above the car, the burly, 6'4" Lippo stood straight up through the sunroof and grabbed for the wheel. "The first time I reached I just got one hand on the wheel," recalls Lippo. "Then the car accelerated and I got both hands on it and I gave it one hellacious tug. It was like scoring the winning touchdown."

The daredevils won the day. The wheel clunked down, and moments later Gordon landed to the cheers of about 900 onlookers who had been drawn to the scene as the 90-minute drama unfolded. "We're not just a bunch of crazies," says Moser. "We had the whole thing under control. We were nowhere near the propeller. Anyway we probably wouldn't have done it if we hadn't all known each other." Intense newspaper and TV interest in the feat amuses Moser. "After all these years in air shows, what am I doing when I finally get some notoriety?" he asks. "Driving a car!"

Nice job anyway.

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