Bill Reister had a perfect day for flying — blue skies, warm temperatures and slight breezes — when his small airplane took off from Gwinnett County Airport-Briscoe Field in Lawrenceville.
But his leisurely flight around the area Sunday morning turned memorable when his aircraft lost power and he couldn’t reach an airport landing strip.
Instead, the Dunwoody man dropped safely onto the grassy median of Ga. 400, a couple hundred yards south of Dawson Forest Road.
“Everything was going fine. It was a great day ... for the first 40 minutes,” said Reister as he stood next to the two-seat, low-winged monoplane. “We’re very fortunate.”
A witness praised Reister’s piloting skills.
“We were in line at Waffle House when we saw the plane and how low it was flying,” Laura Knight said. “That’s the most amazing piloting job I’ve ever seen.”
Dawson County Sheriff’s Deputy Laura Bishop was on patrol nearby and watched the plane circle the area.
“I knew something was wrong,” she said. “He was flying so low.”
Moments later she responded to the landing.
Reister, a former Air Force pilot, said he took over control of the aircraft from his friend, Richard Geneva, after it began to lose power.
He maneuvered it, flying under the power lines across the highway with cars stopped at the red light below.
“It was so wild that I could see the traffic light was red,” Geneva said. “I thought we were going to flip.”
The plane came to stop in the median, after its wing clipped a traffic sign.
Describing the incident, Geneva said the feeling was like jumping off the roof of a house and landing on his backside.
“That’s the only way I can describe it,” he said.
Sheriff’s Sgt. Johnny Holtzclaw said the agency received many calls that the aircraft had landed in the median.
“We were pretty fortunate, as far as that was concerned,” he said, noting that Dawson Forest serves as the primary entrance to North Georgia Premium Outlets and the amount of traffic was “pretty moderate.”
Reister was flying a Lancair 320, a two-seat, single-engine craft.
“That’s a kit-built aircraft. It was about 18 years old,” Holtzclaw said. “The owner did not build it. He’s had it about four years.”
All lanes of Ga. 400 remained open while motorists slowed to take photos of the downed aircraft.
The plane was taken to Elliott Airfield, where officials with the Federal Aviation Administration will try to figure out what happened, said Dawson County Emergency Services Battalion Chief Robby Lee.
Kathleen Bergen, FAA spokeswoman, said the landing will be classified as an “incident” rather than an “accident” because it didn’t result in any serious injuries or substantial damage.
She also said such landings are more common than people probably think, noting that someone landed on Interstate 85 during rush hour just a few months ago.
“An aircraft gets in trouble, the pilot needs to put it down some place and a road ... is a nice, smooth flat surface,” Bergen said.