Meet the ‘hero pilot’ who helped guide another plane onto a busy highway

Avatar for Natasha McKentyBy Natasha McKenty | June 30, 2021

Estimated reading time 8 minutes, 7 seconds.

Marcus Summa is uncomfortable with being referred to as a hero. In fact, when news publications gave credit to an unknown airline pilot for guiding a Cessna 172 with engine failure to a safe landing, he didn’t mind. “They can have the credit,” he said. “I honestly hadn’t given it a second thought; I wasn’t really expecting to hear anything else.”

Summa is referring to the June 11, 2021, emergency landing on a South Florida highway. Flight instructor Richard Lee and his student were faced with making critical decisions under stress after their Cessna 172’s engine failed mid-flight over a busy highway near Sunrise, Florida. After their attempt to contact ATC was left unanswered, a “hero pilot” responded to the call and took over, guiding them to safety.

Summa, who is also a flight instructor, was on a cross-country flight nearby with a female student in the Cessna 172 pictured, as they overheard the distress calls. Skyline Aviation Photo

The good Samaritan pilot (Summa), who is also a flight instructor, was on a cross-country flight nearby with a female student as they overheard the distress calls. The entire conversation was recorded on radio transmission, where Summa can be heard calmly directing the Highway I-75-bound plane while reassuring the pilot he was “looking good.”

“You think it’s a good idea to land on the highway?” radioed Lee. It’s a highway that Summa admits sees more emergency landings than it should due to “crowded airspace” and the current popularity in flight training.

“Yeah, man, put it down wherever you got, you look good. I think you’re gonna be fine.”

Summa suggested that Lee “maintain a faster than normal airspeed” to put the plane down between cars on the busy artery. “Put it down in front of them, and they’ll see you and stop,” he instructed.

Lee managed to glide the plane, landing on the median and avoiding cars altogether. 10News Video Screenshot

“Watch out for that truck,” said Summa, when it appeared Lee and his student might land on top of a semi-truck. “I’m sure it wasn’t even that close, but from a thousand feet, it looked really close,” he added.

A few seconds later, you hear, “I landed! I landed! I landed! We’re on the highway! We’re on the highway!” Lee managed to glide the plane, landing on the median and avoiding cars altogether.

“Good landing, sir. I’m going to tell Miami you’re OK.”

ATC recording.

And with that, Summa continued on his cross-country flight. All in a day’s work.

“I think my student was more excited than I was at the time,” he laughed. Still hesitant to take much credit, Summa praised Lee for doing “a really great job executing an emergency landing. The plane was safe, the student was safe; there wasn’t even any damage to the aircraft.”

Summa said everyone reacts differently to stressful situations, and it bothers him to see comments below the news stories criticizing the CFI “because he didn’t sound super confident.” 

“It’s not our jobs as pilots to sound cool; it’s to ensure a safe outcome of the flight. It was very easy for me to sound calm from the safety of my own well-running aircraft,” he added.

Due to crowded airspace and the growing flight training industry, unfortunately, situations like this are “commonplace.” Summa has seen his share of emergency landings and creates opportunities to prepare his students for events like an engine failure. “Whenever you send a student off to solo, you’re sending them into any situation, and they need to be prepared for anything that transpires.”

Summa is the owner of Skyline Aviation Academy, a professional flight school offering both flight training services and aerial tours. Skyline Aviation Photo

Summa opened Skyline Aviation Academy just five months ago — a professional flight school offering both flight training services and aerial tours of Everglades National Park and “iconic South Florida beaches.” The former restaurant manager said he started flying in 2015 and soon realized he needed it to be more than “the best hobby in the world.”

“I really enjoy taking my students up and seeing them grow . . . that passion for aviation,” he added. And the “unknown airline pilot” assumption in other news reports may have actually been a premonition – Summa is currently part of the American Airlines cadet program with hopes of “actually flying for American.”

Since the incident in mid-June, the story of Summa and the emergency landing has circulated the major U.S. news outlets, including an interview on Good Morning America. Summa said he hasn’t heard from Lee, but doesn’t expect to. “It’s no big deal. I think as an instructor, you get used to talking people through things – [it] just comes naturally as far as emergencies.”

As the FAA continues to investigate the incident, Summa said he’s enjoyed the pat on the back he’s received from his students, previous flight school, and the Civil Air Patrol.

“I don’t feel like I necessarily did anything,” he said. “[The] aviation community, we all look out for each other, so I think anyone else in the same situation probably would react the same way. I am reluctant to accept any credit, you know, it’s kind of just a thing that happened.”

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