Imagine driving home on a Tuesday at 4:15 p.m. You have just driven through the normal merging zone in Suwanee on I-85/northbound at Highway 317 (Exit 111) and have exited to the left and then up I-985/northbound toward Gainesville. Just one or two minutes into your I-985 trip, as highway hypnosis begins clearing its throat, you hear approaching engine noise. It sounds like it is from above. Then you see a shadow and dart up your eyes, as a white, single-engine plane descends and lands hard right in front of you, brushing a tractor trailer upon its impromptu approach.
Now imagine how the pilot and the passenger of that single-engine 1966 Piper PA-28 Cheorkee felt.
Those two and the motorists surrounding escaped without injuries as this scene unfolded during PM drive on January 24th.
Planes just do not land on freeways very often. An engine failure forced a pilot to land his plane on I-85/southbound at Clairmont Road (Exit 91) in DeKalb County on September 28th, 2010. Responders simply towed the stalled aircraft to the Clairmont exit and up the road to DeKalb-Peachtree Airport.
This I-985 operation between Suwanee and Buford was more difficult and interrupted traffic for longer than the 2010 landing.
First, I-985 is just two lanes in each direction and I-85 in Brookhaven is more than twice the width. When the Piper first landed, motorists creeped by on the northbound right shoulder, but the plane almost perfectly took up both thru lanes. As soon as the phalanx of fire, police, the State Patrol, HERO, hazmat, and wrecker services arrived, they closed all of I-985/northbound.
At one point, they blocked a left lane of I-985/southbound, too, jamming it from Flowery Branch.
Unlike some extreme closures we have seen in 2023, the various agencies acted quickly to stymie what would inevitably be a major interruption in busy north Gwinnett.
GSP shut down the I-85/northbound ramp to I-985 (Exit 113), so people would know to bypass the closure. GSP did not have a place to safely reverse the stopped traffic on I-985/northbound, since that would require leading drivers down I-85 the wrong-way and back onto the Hwy. 317 interchange. That would also have forced the full closure of I-85/northbound, making the delays even worse.
So vehicles stuck on I-985/northbound had to wait, though not as long as one might have expected.
Fortunately, the plane landed - it didn’t crash.
When WSB Triple Team Traffic’s Alex Williams took the first calls in our 24-Hour Traffic Center on this, our Traffic Troopers were quick to note that this was a landing, albeit in a very unusual and consequential place. As soon as Williams passed on this info, Mike Shields found it on the Jam Cam.
Though the interstate would inevitably close, our first views of this spectacular site conveyed relief. There was no fire and no smoldering wreckage. The plane just sat, stopped. Its front landing gear did appear damaged, so the nose was pitched downward and the tail up.
Of course, this was the first and main stop of my WSB Skycopter trip that afternoon. Before we arrived at the scene, we noticed the jam already on I-85/northbound from Sugarloaf Pkwy. (Exit 108), up past I-985, and to Hwy. 20/Mall of Georgia (Exit 115).
Once above the scene, we noticed the large response around the plane, the hazmat workers looking for fluid near the wings, and the lack of any vehicles damaged.
The Piper’s wing did strike the trailer of one big rig, whose driver indicated as much in his 911 call.
Channel 2 Action News reports that a flying instructor and a student were on board and that the instructor landed the plane.
We stayed over the scene to see the crew load up and begin towing the plane up I-985 at around 5:30 p.m. Police had to keep the freeway closed for this entire process, since both the plane and the armada of police and fire escorting it took up both lanes. They had to lead the plane slowly for three miles up to the Highway 20 ramp (Exit 4).
HERO and police slowly paced the stuck I-985 traffic behind this plane-procession until they arrived safely on the ramp. I-985 completely reopened at 6 p.m., as did the I-85/northbound exit ramp to it. Traffic had largely recovered by 6:30 and the wounded plane and rescue crew sat on the right side of the Highway 20 ramp until after dark.
After assessing the lack of injuries or fluid spill, the crews could have likely opened I-985 sooner. They also could have led the stuck I-985 traffic the wrong way down the median and then blocked the I-985/southbound left lane to have let the trapped drivers into traffic.
But considering the magnitude of this - a plane landing on an interstate - this all could have been so much worse and affected rush hour for far longer.
I flew over the plane that crashed on I-285/eastbound at Peachtree Industrial (Exit 31) in May of 2015. A contaminated fuel line led to that plane’s quick demise after its takeoff from nearby DeKalb-Peachtree Airport, killing four onboard. It, too, nicked a big rig on its way down, but injured no motorists. We were sitting in the WSB Skycopter on the pad at KPDK when we saw the plumes of smoke after impact.
That crash, as expected, shut both sides of I-285 for a couple of hours and kept I-285/eastbound completely closed for over five hours.
Metro Atlanta traffic got bruised last Tuesday, but this astonishing site on I-985 ended miraculously nonetheless. Thankfully.
Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also hosts a traffic podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com.
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