Two days ago, Walter Amon and his wife, Hannelore, flew over the Atlantic Ocean from the Bahamas to Fort Lauderdale.
On Sunday, the couple planned a flight from Fort Lauderdale to Tallahassee, with Gainesville set as a pit stop for fuel and a bathroom break.
Around noon, as the pair from Scottsdale, Ariz., closed in on Gainesville Regional Airport, Amon said he saw smoke rise from the plane and realized the brief pit stop in Gainesville might be more involved.
“It was obvious that something was going on with the engine,” the 61-year-old pilot said. “Then smoke was coming out of the engine and I had to open the window, and then the engine started to shake.”
Amon said he realized he and his wife were in big trouble. The engine caught fire and the windshield was covered in oil. The aircraft approached the Gainesville area at 1,000 to 1,500 feet per minute, and Amon stuck his head out of the window to secure a safer landing.
“I called the tower, I knew they couldn’t help me but they needed to be informed,” Amon said. “I told them, ‘Mayday, mayday, mayday!’
“I saw a sports field or soccer field on the left side of Waldo Road, but there was a lot of people standing there and playing games,” Amon said, describing Citizens Field. “I opted not to land there, and there was no other choice.”
The pilot said he was then able to make it over cars, signs, and traffic lights to land on Waldo Road.
It was his best option, and he apologized for an hours-long traffic diversion.
Amon said he’s flown aircraft ranging from hang gliders to airplanes for 40 years; Sunday was the first time he has ever dealt with an engine issue mid-flight, but it won’t stop him from getting back into the cockpit in the future.
“The most important thing is that my wife and myself survived,” he said. “And there are no other injuries from people. That’s the point. Everything else, we’ll see.”
The pilot said the couple was extremely fortunate the crash didn’t happen a day earlier on their trip from the Bahamas to Fort Lauderdale.
“We are lucky that it happened yesterday,” Amon said. “We are lucky that we survived and we are lucky that it was in Gainesville.”
Stephanie Byrne contributed reporting.