AK - Pilot lands plane safely after engine fire

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During a half-hour flight Thursday between Huslia and Galena, Mim Jensen was lost in thought about the funeral she had attended earlier that day when the airplane's left engine erupted "into a torpedo of flames."

The Piper Navajo wobbled and some of the eight passengers shrieked in fear as the glare of the flames lit up the 10-seater's cockpit.

"Then everybody started to pray," Jensen, 39, said.

The plane's veteran pilot, Dee Rice, who works for Larry's Flying Service, Inc., flew the crippled Piper--sans one engine--the final 20 minutes to Galena. No one was hurt.

"There's nothing between Huslia and Galena. If she would have had to land, she would have been landing between snow and trees and creeks," Jensen said.

The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating the incident, a standard procedure, according to Larry Chenaille, the airplane's owner. The cause of the engine failure has not yet been determined, he said.

Rice, 48, who has flown for Larry's 10 of her 22 years as a pilot, said something, probably a cylinder, blew out the cowling (engine cover) and the engine ignited.

She credits her experience for why she was able to prevail in the ordeal.

"My survival instincts were strong. I thought, 'I could die right now and I don't want to do that.' I was thinking about seeing my sons (26 and 28) and my dog."

Passengers on the flight are grateful to Rice for gaining control of the plane and preventing a situation that could have been devastating.

Fred Huntington, 51, who sat in the co-pilot seat, said when he first heard the bang he thought something had hit the plane from outside or that Rice had hit her knee against something.

A second later he saw the engine was ablaze.

"The whole airplane was kind of out of control. We weren't nose down but we were weaving around and losing altitude," Huntington said. "The pilot--she was pretty well shaken up--she did her job calmly even though she was shaking. The flame was only about a foot from where she was sitting. Everybody was praying to the top of their lungs. You could hear the fire just torching out there--wwwhhhoooooooossshhhh--like that."

Rice said a catastrophic engine failure rarely occurs and had never happened to her before Thursday.

She said pilots shut down engines occasionally as a precautionary measure so they are trained to fly with only one engine--not that it was easy.

"I feel there were definitely some miracles going on in that airplane last night," she said.

Rice, who was trained by her father, Bob Rice, another longtime Bush pilot, appreciated the passengers who prayed, saying their fear was a healthy reaction. "When I had time, I was praying too."

Rice was in constant radio contact with the tower in Galena and with Larry's, which is headquartered in Fairbanks. "I did not want to go through it alone." She also maintained radio contact so she could report where she was in case the plane went down.

She said she concentrated on doing whatever she could do to fly the plane, instead of focusing on the failed engine.

"Something inside me realized I did not have time to get excited about it," Rice said. "I had to do everything in my power to take care of the situation."

Larry's, a 30-year-old company, has seven Piper Navajos in its fleet. The plane Rice was flying was built in 1980.

Rice, who is also director of operations at Larry's, said the incident hasn't made her lose faith in Pipers. "The airplane did what it was supposed to do."

-- Doris (nocents@bellsouth.net), December 24, 2000

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