Biplane pilot walks away unscathed after emergency landing

A semi driver called 911 at about 8 a.m. Sunday after noticing a biplane using U.S. Highway 56/77 at the Kansas Highway 150 junction as a landing strip.

Marion County Sheriff Deputy Jim Philpot, first at the scene, said the pilot, Donald DeWitt, 71, of Norman, Okla., told him he had engine trouble and was trying to divert to the Marion Municipal Airport.

When he realized he wasn?t going to make it, DeWitt made an emergency landing on the highway.

According to Philpot, prior to his landing, DeWitt arced a power line along K-150 near Wagonwheel Road while he was flying low over the highway trying to make it to Marion.

Sharon and Galen Unruh, owners of Auto House and pilots themselves, along with Merlin Funk of Hillsboro, wrecker driver, arrived to help tow the biplane to Marion?s airport.

?It was the first time I ever towed an airplane,? Funk said.

When the call for a tow truck came in at about 9 a.m., Funk said he thought it was a Cessna 150. As it turned out, the biplane was a 1998 Celebrity two-seater experimental model.

?I thought we would be taking the wings off, but it (the bi-plane) wasn?t that wide,? he said.

The Unruhs were on site to offer their assistance too.

?Being pilots ourselves,? Sharon Unruh said, ?we knew what areas to hook on and which ones not to.?

Sharon Unruh said she thought it was remarkable that the plane was in one piece.

?The pilot did an excellent job landing,? she said, ?and it was an exciting Sunday morning.?

Funk said DeWitt told him he was returning from the 2010 National Biplane Fly-In in Junction City, which until this year had been held in Bartles?ville, Okla.

Using a cloth strap, Funk said he winched the front of the plane first and onto the tow truck. From start to finish, it took about 30 minutes to get the plane ready for transport.

Once loaded, Funk said, he needed to stay almost in the center of the highway to avoid the wings hitting signs or other obstacles along the way.

?It was touch and go,? he said.

Sheriff Rob Craft said the Federal Aviation Administra-tion was contacted and will be conducting its own investigation of the incident.

No injuries to the pilot or any motorists traveling on U.S. 77 were reported, according to the sheriff?s office.

?It could have been bad,? Funk said about the landing. ?(DeWitt) was a very lucky guy.?

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