FALMOUTH — Investigators are working to determine what forced a pilot to land a two-seat airplane in the southbound lanes of Interstate 295 during rush hour Thursday evening.
Sachin Hejaji, 42, of Falmouth, landed the Cessna 152 around 5 p.m. without injuring himself or anyone on the ground or damaging any vehicles.
“It was amazing,” said state Trooper Justin Cooley. “He landed in the middle of the road. It was luck. I don’t know any other way to put it.”
After landing on the busy highway in Cumberland, Hejaji taxied the plane for about a half-mile before pulling into the median in Falmouth, about a half-mile north of the Johnson Road overpass.
Standing behind the plane after his emergency landing, Hejaji was shaken up but not injured. “I’m not in the right frame of mind to talk,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
The airplane, built in 1985 and leased by Hejaji from Maine Aviation Aircraft Leasing of Portland, did not appear damaged. As police and firefighters huddled nearby, Hejaji stood alone, gazing at the white-and-red plane.
Cooley said Hejaji, who was flying alone, told police that he was returning to the Portland International Jetport from Waterville at an altitude of 2,000 feet when the plane’s engine lost power. He decided to land on the interstate.
Jacob Alves, 27, who works in Yarmouth, was carpooling home to Gorham with a co-worker when he noticed lights descending onto the road about a half-mile ahead. Cars began to slow, and by the time he reached the aircraft it was stopped, Alves said.
“It didn’t even seem like it was anything out of the ordinary,” he said. “By the time we got up near it, we said, ‘Oh wow, it’s a plane.’ ”
The landing snarled traffic in both directions on the interstate. Police were able to keep one lane of traffic moving around the airplane after Hejaji pulled it into the median, but Cooley said southbound traffic was backed up for miles, into Freeport.
Northbound traffic was backed up from Falmouth into South Portland. Police said the congestion was caused by drivers who were looking at the plane.
“Traffic was literally slowed by curiosity,” said Ted Talbot, spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation.
Talbot, who works in Augusta, said he was driving south when traffic slowed to a halt in Freeport. It took him another 50 minutes to reach the site in Falmouth where the plane was parked.
Around 7 p.m., the state shut down the southbound lanes in Yarmouth and rerouted traffic onto Route 1. The rare closure allowed police to put the airplane on a flatbed truck and move it to a state garage off Route 1 in Yarmouth.
Kathleen Bergen, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said her agency will try to determine what prompted the emergency landing.
The National Transportation Safety Board issued a statement Thursday night saying that, without injuries or damage, that agency will not investigate the incident.
Jim Iacono, director of business development for Maine Aviation, a charter service based at the jetport, confirmed that the craft belongs to the company but would not provide further details.
Gabe Souza, a Portland Press Herald photographer, went up in the same plane earlier in the day with a different pilot to take photographs over Cumberland and Yarmouth. He said there were no apparent mechanical problems with the plane, but when he opened a window to take a photograph, the door opened.
Chris Griffith of Scarborough, who has been a pilot for 29 years and owns a Cessna, praised Hejaji for remaining calm under pressure.
“The most important thing he did is that he didn’t panic,” said Griffith, the chairman of an organization known as Friends of the Biddeford Airport, who said he doesn’t know Hejaji personally. “It sounds as though he remained very calm, cool and collected.”
Griffith, who serves as a consultant to the Texas Flying Legends performing group, said Hejaji most likely flew over the line of southbound drivers, who saw him and slowed down.
Griffith said the Cessna that Hejaji was flying, known as a two-seat trainer, is equipped with a “stall speed” that would have allowed him to fly at about 45 mph.
Once the southbound drivers spotted him overhead and began to slow down, Hejaji would have picked an opening and landed, he said. The cars in front of Hejaji were probably going at highway speed and their drivers probably didn’t even notice him when he landed the plane.
Griffith said Hejaji probably taxied for a half-mile because he wanted to find a safe place to pull over that would not impede traffic.
“I thought he did pretty well,” Griffith said. “From one pilot to another, I commend him for not losing his head.”
Hejaji emigrated to the United States from India more than 13 years ago, and he and his wife support new arrivals from other countries, according to an article published earlier this year in the Press Herald about a celebration of immigration through performing arts.
In April, a Maine game warden, Dan Dufault, had to make an emergency landing on the Maine Turnpike in Litchfield after running out of fuel. His Cessna 172 was refueled and flown off the highway.
Staff Writer Matt Byrne contributed to this report.
Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: