Mayday over Chicago
When a rare mechanical failure caused a partial power loss in the single-engine airplane John Ginley ’15 was flying, his expertise and assistance from co-pilot Ally Gilbert led to a ‘miraculous’ and safe emergency landing in downtown Chicago.
Aviation engineering alum John Ginley ’15 and his girlfriend Ally Gilbert were flying home to Ohio from an airshow in Wisconsin last July when he suddenly heard an abnormal decrease in engine power.
It was the first hitch in an otherwise fantastic week spent in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Ginley said, at EAA AirVenture—one of the largest airshows in the world.
Gilbert, who had earned her private pilot’s license earlier that month, flew the entire trip from Medina, Ohio, to Wisconsin. She planned to fly back as well, but after the couple stopped just outside of Chicago in Schaumberg, Illinois, for lunch and gas, she turned the left seat over to Ginley so she could take photos of the picturesque Lake Michigan shoreline from above.
It was July 27—a beautiful summer day and the couple had the cockpit wide open with their elbows hanging out of the rented 1946 Ercoupe 415-D.
“We were enjoying ourselves,” said Ginley, 25, a corporate pilot and part-time flight instructor at Ohio State. “Ally was taking pictures of the shoreline and downtown Chicago, and I kept flying.”
Until he heard the power failure. Ginley pushed the throttle to try and get more power, but it didn’t respond. He exercised the throttle several more times before alerting Gilbert.
“I’ll never forget it, I said, ‘Hey Al, I think we have a problem.’”
He tried to fix the throttle a few more times before asking Gilbert to find the radio frequency for Chicago Midway’s control tower on an aviation app.
By then, Ginley estimated, they had lost 75 to 80 percent of the aircraft’s power. Without enough power to sustain level flight, the plane was beginning to glide toward the ground in the worst location possible—over downtown Chicago.
“Ninety-five percent of our trip was over cornfields and would have made a situation like this much less of a stressful event,” he said.
Just before calling the tower, Ginley took one last look at everything and had a “moment of acceptance.”
“Everything you’ve prepared for, everything you’ve trained for—this is happening,” he said.
Ginley has had a lot of training since taking his first flying lesson at age 13. He earned his private pilot’s license at 17 and completed his flight training and ratings at Ohio State. He is a four-year veteran and current head coach of the Ohio State flight team and has been a flight instructor since his junior year of college.
But this was the first time he had faced an emergency of this magnitude.
When Ginley called Chicago Midway’s tower, the plane’s altitude wasn’t very high. “I wanted to be as clear as possible because I didn't know if I would have time to say it again. So I very calmly said, ‘Midway Tower … mayday, mayday, mayday.’”
He told air traffic control about their partial engine power failure. The controller directed them to Chicago Midway Airport—six or seven miles away. Based on the airplane’s altitude and energy, Ginley knew there was no way they’d make it.
“Negative sir, we are unable. We’re going to be somewhere down here on the shoreline,” he replied.
Air traffic control asked if they could make it to Lake Shore Drive—a busy expressway that runs through Chicago alongside the Lake Michigan shoreline. After confirming its location, Ginley prepared to land, “At this point, we were maybe 500 feet above the ground. Maybe less.”
It was around 3:15 p.m. on Friday—the beginning of rush hour—but since the plane was moving at around 80 miles per hour, Ginley figured they could essentially merge with the traffic.
He was focused on the road, trying to find a straight enough stretch of highway to land on, when he heard Gilbert say, “Johnny, bridge.”
Ginley looked up and saw the 35th Street pedestrian bridge stretching across the highway.
“There was no way we were going to go over the top of it … Our only option was to go underneath it,” Ginley explained. “We had to fly above the cars, but beneath the bridge—we’re kind of threading the needle at that point.”
They flew out the other side of the bridge and toward a sea of red brake lights. But a moment later, the left lane opened up and Ginley pointed the plane toward the opening. He managed to bring the plane to a stop right by the median.