This Plane’s Engine Failed, and the Only Place to Land Was the Busiest Highway in America

After the plane clipped his car and crash-landed on the freeway, John Meffert doubted that anyone could have survived.

Courtesy Drew Hoffman

“Mayday! We got Mayday!” Frank Pisano screamed over the micro­phone to the air control tower at John Wayne Airport last June. One of the two engines on his 1975 Cessna had failed, and he was now on a collision course with one of the busiest highways in America—­Interstate 405, just south of Los Angeles—­and there was no stopping it.

Driving south on the 405, near the airport’s runway, was John Meffert. A fire department captain, Meffert, 47, was heading home from his shift and had nothing on his mind that Friday morning but the Fourth of July weekend ahead of him. Then a low-flying plane caught his eye. After he took a second glance, a thought crossed his mind: “This plane’s going to hit me,” Meffert told Fox 8.

He was right. The plane slammed into the center median, popped up a few feet, and then clipped the front of Meffert’s SUV. It finally stopped after hitting the divider on the southbound side. Meffert pulled over. He was unhurt, and his SUV had sustained only a dent and a large scratch, so he turned his attention to the plane. He ran toward the smoke billowing from it—and then he saw Frank’s wife, Janan Pisano, pop her head up on the passenger side.

By the time Meffert reached the aircraft, part of the fuselage was on fire and Janan, who was covered in blood, was on the wing trying to pull her husband from the wreck. Meffert, afraid the plane would explode, guided her to safety behind it. At this point, traffic had come to a stop, and two nurses jumped out of their cars to help lead Janan farther away as Meffert ran back for the pilot. Frank had been knocked out by the initial crash, but he was conscious now and lying across both seats.

“I’m going to get you out,” Meffert said as he positioned himself under the pilot’s arms and carefully lifted him from the cockpit. A former medic in the Navy, Meffert was fully aware that if Frank had suffered a broken back, an errant twist could leave him paralyzed. But Meffert had to hurry. He dragged the pilot off the wing and carried him to the side of the freeway to safety, where they watched flames engulf the plane.

The Pisanos spent three weeks in the hospital, with Frank recovering from six broken bones in his back and Janan recovering from five. Remarkably, Meffert’s car was the only one hit by the plane. Had Meffert been a second or two faster, Frank told the Orange County Register, the left propeller would have ripped the top off his SUV and killed him.

“I play all the what-ifs—going slower, going faster. It could have been a very different turnout,” ­Meffert told Fox 8. “We just had a lot of angels.”

Next, read the story about how two pilots were flying from Oahu to Hawaii when their engine stopped.

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Taylor Markarian
Taylor is a regular contributor to covering culture, advice, travel, pets, and all things weird and haunted. She is the author of From the Basement: A History of Emo Music and How It Changed Society, which analyzes the evolution of punk and mental health. She holds a B.A. in Writing, Literature & Publishing from Emerson College.