Mayday over Chicago

Posted: February 26, 2019

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.

John Ginley
John Ginley
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.

Following a partial power loss, John Ginley landed this rented Ercoupe on Lake Shore Drive in downtown Chicago during the beginning of rush hour. Miraculously, there were no injuries or damages. [photo: Chicago Fire Department]
Following a partial power loss, John Ginley landed this rented Ercoupe on Lake Shore Drive in downtown Chicago during the beginning of rush hour. Miraculously, there were no injuries or damages. [photo: Chicago Fire Department]

“It was probably one of the shortest landings I’ve ever done in my life,” he said. “I think I landed with my foot on the brake and we came to a stop probably within 400 to 500 feet of touching down.”

After exiting the plane, they were amazed to see that not only were there no injuries, but the airplane didn’t have a scratch on it.

“With the odds clearly stacked against him, John showed what it means to be a professional aviator,” said Ohio State Aviation Studies Lecturer Shawn Pruchnicki, an aviation safety expert and former airline pilot.

Training the next generation

After their miraculous landing, the couple was flooded with media calls to tell their story, but they weren’t interested in the spotlight, only in helping other pilots.

“It definitely affects the way we fly now,” Ginley explained. “We want pilots to be able to learn from what we experienced.”

The FAA investigation found that the Ercoupe’s throttle cable had broken off at the carburetor and the engine vibrated the throttle back to idle, leaving Ginley with no throttle control, he told AOPA Flight Training magazine.

Ginley attributes their successful landing to training and to having a second pilot on board.

“If she were not in the right seat of that airplane with me, I would not be alive today. We both really showed off our skills that day,” he said, adding that Gilbert will soon be a Buckeye as well. She plans to study aviation management at Ohio State beginning next fall.

The flight training Ginley received at Ohio State was also paramount.

“I was fortunate enough to get a lot of in-depth experience at Ohio State, through a lot of great instructors as well as the structured training program,” he explained. “We train for these kinds of things. We train to make sure that you have that attitude and mental readiness to be able to handle it no matter what happens or where it happens.”

During his time on the Ohio State flight team, Ginley learned the importance of knowing your aircraft, down to exactly how much energy there is to work with.

“It’s learning how to fly not only to a proficient level but to a precise level and knowing exactly what you can do to make it do what you want,” he said, noting that he had flown the Ercoupe many times prior.

At Ohio State, Ginley teaches other pilots how to be flight instructors and his experience handling in-flight emergencies is one many pilots will now benefit from.

He shares his story with students and stresses that emergencies can happen anytime, anyplace, and they need to have a plan to execute. Ginley is also changing how he incorporates emergency procedures into lessons.

“It’s about introducing some non-normal situations, potentially at a lower altitude or while they’re in the middle of a maneuver. Because you don’t want them to anticipate that it’s coming.”

One of the biggest lessons he learned comes from a legendary aerobatic and military test pilot, Bob Hoover, who said to “fly the airplane all the way into the crash.”

“Don’t just give up right away. Have the mindset that this is happening and you need to deal with it,” Ginley said. “Have some faith that this will work out.”

After the Lake Shore Drive landing, the couple took a couple weeks off from flying, but Ginley said they never once considered giving it up. When they were ready, they rented an airplane at The Ohio State University Airport, flew around for 30 minutes and then landed.

“It was just nice to know that we came back and landed because we wanted to, not because we had to,” Ginley said. “It was good to get back on the horse.”

by Candi Clevenger, College of Engineering Communications,