The man who landed his airplane on Lake Shore Drive early Sunday morning peered past rows of police cars, gaping drivers and news trucks, searching for his fiancee’s red SUV while giving her directions.
“You can’t miss it,” said the soft-spoken pilot into his cellphone.
Indeed, the sight of an airplane parked on a strip of grass by Buckingham Fountain caused quite the spectacle Sunday morning. Police officers posed for photos, drivers slowed for a closer look, and joggers and bikers on the lakeshore path traded witty one-liners.
“Oh … this is where I left my airplane,” one biker shouted to a companion.
Just two hours earlier, John Pedersen of Lombard had been flying his two-seater plane over downtown Chicago when a stabilizing part broke loose, causing the aircraft to shake violently.
Unable to regain stability, the 51-year-old electrician radioed a mayday call to O’Hare Airport.
“There’s no way I could have got it to Midway or O’Hare,” he said.
At the time of the mayday call, about 5:45 a.m., he was flying just 1,900 feet above Millennium Park, he said.
The sun had not yet risen over Lake Michigan, but already Lindsay O’Brien was starting to set up a water station in Grant Park for a 20-mile run. Looking up, she saw Pedersen’s plane flying south across the western portion of the park, then banking and flying above Lake Shore Drive.
“I was like, ‘That’s really low,’ ” she later recalled. “And then he disappeared out of my sightline.”
Pedersen. who said he had been flying for five years, had decided the drive was his best landing spot. If timed correctly, he figured, he could bring down the plane while traffic was stopped at a red light.
“You pick a landing spot that’s not going to jeopardize anybody else,” he said.
When the light on East Balbo Avenue turned red, he brought the plane down in the northbound lanes, its nose facing north.
It was a tricky landing, but he stuck it, Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said admiringly.
Two cars actually hit the airplane after it landed – and then, mysteriously, sped off, Pedersen said. One can only imagine what their drivers were thinking.
Pedersen walked away uninjured, and no other injuries were reported, Langford said.
Once firefighters arrived, they quickly pushed the plane, a RANS S-6ES Coyote II according to FAA records, off the drive, bringing it to a resting place pointing southeast, toward Lake Michigan. Police briefly stopped northbound traffic, but within minutes, drivers were passing, many of them driving slowly to stare. From one car, a cell phone emerged, presumably to take a photo.
Television crews soon started showing up, with reporters and cameramen crowding around the soft-spoken pilot clad in jeans and a hooded sweatshirt.
Hands in his sweatshirt pockets, Pedersen described his flight from Schaumburg Airport to Lake Shore Drive, repeating it again as other reporters walked up to the scene.
“It’s a blessing,” Pedersen said.
Minutes later, the hubbub died down as reporters rushed off to file. At one point, a driver for a towing company walked up and gave Pedersen a business card. At another, a group of people took a photo in front of the plane, apparently unaware that the man pacing in the background feet away was the pilot.
Soon, Ileana Alvarez, Pedersen’s fiancee, pulled up.
When Pedersen had called to tell her what had happened, she first thought he was joking, she said. It soon became clear he was not.
After asking how Pedersen brought the plane onto the grass, Alvarez couldn’t resist ribbing him to those in earshot.
“And he wants me to get on a plane with him,” she joked. “Are you kidding me?”
As she took in the scene, Alvarez grew serious.
“As long as he’s okay, that’s what matters to me.”