When William Scott realized he'd run out of gas yesterday morning, he had the same reaction as most drivers, which is to say unprintable. Complicating matters, he also was several thousand feet in the air in a single-engine Mooney airplane over southern Fairfax County.
The control tower at Dulles International Airport told him to head on over, but Scott knew he'd never make it that far. So he turned Route 123 into his private runway, dodging power lines and running one red light en route to a safe and injury-free landing during the early rush hour.
Scott, 27, of Middleburg, touched down on the southbound side of the four-lane road at Burke Lake Road, just before Route 123 narrows to two lanes. In addition to using some piloting skill (other than reading the fuel gauge), Scott got lucky on two counts: Most car traffic was headed northbound toward Fairfax City when he touched down shortly before 8 a.m., and Fairfax County Officer Tim Benedict happened to pull in right behind Scott's plane and controlled the traffic until Scott could taxi safely off the road.
Traffic was shut down for only seven minutes, police said, and then again briefly later in the afternoon when the plane was towed to nearby Burke Lake Park. The only damage to the plane was a bent gear door, Scott said.
Scott had taken off minutes earlier from Manassas Regional Airport and was headed for his job in Massachusetts as a computer animator. As he headed north, the engine of the 1964 Mooney sputtered and died.
"There's nothing wrong with the plane," he said later. "Just a major malfunction between the ears."
Scott was 12 miles from Dulles and wasn't going to be able to land there. Dulles authorities told him that they would start emergency equipment toward him and that he should activate a special beacon that could help locate the plane should it crash.
"I was scared," he said. "I was hoping I wasn't going to wipe out."
He looked down and saw Route 123, also called Ox Road. He didn't recognize the road, but told the Dulles tower he was heading for one.
"It was a pretty good landing," he said. "I had to go over a couple sets of wires, and under a set, then under a traffic light. Fortunately, the people at the traffic light were courteous enough to let me run it."
Benedict said he didn't see the plane until it touched down almost right in front of him. He quickly found that motorists were impatient with any slow-moving vehicle, regardless of species. "They were pushing right up against him," Benedict said.
Scott's plane was towed back to the Manassas airport yesterday afternoon. A Federal Aviation Administration investigator visited the scene, and an agency spokeswoman said Scott could face disciplinary actions ranging from an administrative letter to a pilot's certificate revocation if he is found to have violated any aviation regulations.