COEUR d'ALENE - Michael Eller and his three passengers got more fireworks than they expected on the Fourth of July when their small airplane made an emergency landing on Interstate 90.
Eller, 54, of Newman Lake, was piloting the 1971 Cessna Centurian owned by his mother, Helen Eller, 82, also of Newman Lake. She was aboard with his son, William Eller, 29, of Spokane Valley and Kelly Gagmon, William's fiance when the single engine suddenly died.
"We were sightseeing with a couple other airplanes and watching the fireworks," Eller said. "It was 10:20 and we were ready to head back when the engine quit. I went through the restart procedure, and switched tanks, just in case. I couldn't get it restarted."
Flying about 1,300 feet over the city at 3,500 feet, he considered heading to the Coeur d'Alene Airport, but with four on board of the six-place aircraft, he was losing altitude too fast. Unable to spot an empty field on what he described as "a very black night," he opted to set down where he could see an opening in what he called the "river of lights."
"The freeway looked like the best bet," Eller said. "I saw an opening and came in with an almost perfect fit between cars. I don't think the guy ahead even saw us."
Fortunately for the family, traffic was moving at a good pace since his approach speed was about 80 mph and very soon the freeway would have been filled with cars exiting the city following the Fourth of July fireworks show on Lake Coeur d'Alene.
Unfortunately, the loss of engine power left the Cessna without enough hydraulic pressure to lock the landing gear.
"He didn't have enough time or altitude," said David Hartson, Federal Aviation Administration investigator. "He did a good job of putting it down. Nobody got hurt. They were all really lucky."
Eller sat the plane down just east of Atlas Road, but the gear collapsed.
"When I touched down it dropped and skidded," he said.
The left wing clipped a sign and the airplane spun into the guardrail during the 700-foot skid. The tail, horizontal and vertical stabilizers, along with the landing gear sustained major damage.
Because of a propeller strike, FAA regulations require an engine teardown and testing for cracks, Eller said.
"It's probably totaled," he said.
As bad as it was, the incident could have been much worse. Eller thought as the airplane slid along the roadway it was going to jump over the guardrail and drop into the gap between the freeway lanes onto Atlas Road.
"My mother was saying Hail Marys all the way," he said.
The freeway was blocked for two hours, and the Cessna was moved to the median.
Eller, owner of Eller Corp., a construction company, returned with a large flatbed on Monday morning to dismantle the airplane and haul it off. Meanwhile, traffic came to a crawl and backed up about a mile in each direction as drivers slowed to look at the downed aircraft, often shooting photos with cell phones as they passed.
"There has already been one wreck," Hartson said at 11 a.m.
He said Eller was well within FAA guidelines for altitude, which requires pilots to remain at least 1,000 feet above congested areas.
Eller has been flying since 1990, and his mother has owned the airplane since 1994. He said he still has no idea why the engine quit.
"We are trained to do this," he said. "You always think you're going to have time."