MODESTO (CBS13) — There's an old saying, any landing you can walk away from is a good one.
Dirk Kannigiesser, a Bay Area pilot with 25 years of experience, was flying out of Truckee Friday night in a 38-year-old rented Piper Dakota.
The recorded path shows he was an hour into the flight, just west of Modesto, when the engine died. Air traffic control told him he should try to land the plane at the Modesto Airport, 15 miles away.
"I tried to make it to Modesto, however, it became clear that was not possible. So I couldn't reach it. So the second-best option was indeed the highway. Which at that time was a very busy highway," Kannigiesser said.
It was dark. The plane was at 5,700 feet but was losing about 500 to 1,000 feet of altitude every minute.
"You are highly alert, I wouldn't even call it scared. You know that this is a very bad situation" Kannigiesser said.
Kannigiesser, who is commercially rated, slowed the plane down as much as he could without stalling it, keeping it just under 90 miles per hour.
He lined up with Highway 99, and as he glided down, that's when he saw it.
"At the moment when I saw this overpass, I think, 'that's it.' Because now, I ran out of options. And hitting the overpass, clearly, I would have died," Kannigiesser said.
On his way down, he steered away from some trees, but eventually had no choice and clipped a light pole with the wing. The plane flipped and caught fire.
"The instinct tells you, 'Get out of here!' But upside down, to leave an airplane when you are upside down, and in shock, is a tricky thing, right? Getting the seat belt off is a tricky thing. But I managed that, smashed a window and crawled out of the aircraft," Kannigiesser said.
A short time later, the plane exploded. Kannigiesser said it was a miracle that no one, including himself, was injured.
"I do have to process this. A lot of friends called me and said it's my second birthday, indeed it feels like it," Kannigiesser said.
for more features.