BEVERLY — Just after taking off on a solo flight Sunday afternoon, Maggie Taraska heard a strange, unnerving noise. A few seconds later, the control tower called with alarming news: Part of her landing gear had fallen off.
Taraska, a 17-year-old student pilot, would have to land the small, single-engine plane without it.
“I was scared and stressed, honestly,” Taraska recalled at a news conference on Monday. “I felt my heart sink. I realized I was all alone and no one else can do this for me.”
But Taraska kept her cool, quickly reviewing her three years of flight training while waiting for guidance from the ground, which ultimately allowed her to safely execute an emergency landing.
“For about five minutes I was just circling the plane, waiting for people to tell me helpful things,” she said. “And they did, but it felt like forever.”
About 10 minutes into the flight, Taraska heard the voice of her instructor, John Singleton, from the control tower at Beverly Regional Airport. Singleton had heard about what happened while he was in another plane on the ground, and he did his best to keep her thoughts positive.
“I just reassured her, ‘You’re doing a great job. Keep flying it,’ until the emergency crews were in place,” he said Monday. “Then I just told her to treat it like a regular landing as much as you can.”
Taraska, who lives in Gloucester, said his words helped her maintain her poise and focus.
“John has talked me through hundreds of landings, so if anyone could help me, it would be him,” she said.
As she circled the area, fire crews rushed to the airport. In a fortunate coincidence, the airport had hosted an air show that weekend and was well-prepared for an emergency.
“Not that anyone ever hopes this happens, but it couldn’t have happened under better circumstances,” said Beverly Fire Chief Paul Cotter.
As crews lined the runway, Taraska began to feel her fear rise, she said.
“When I saw the flashing lights on the runway, I realized a lot of people thought it wasn’t going to go so well,” she said. “Then John said my parents were waiting for me, so things had to go well for them.”
About 40 minutes after she had taken off, Taraska managed to land without her right main wheel assembly. The plane veered off the runway into grass and then onto a taxiway before coming to a stop in a grassy area. The plane sustained significant damage, but Taraska was unharmed.
“It was a bumpy landing,” she said. “I hit a few signs, so that was nerve-racking.”
Singleton said Taraska’s skill and grace under pressure prevented a potential disaster.
“She has always been such a great, thorough student,” Singleton said. “Some other pilots with more experience would have panicked, but she was very calm and did it by the book.”
Taraska said she has loved flying since she was 14, when her father first took her up in a plane.
While shaken by Sunday’s close call, she still plans to pursue her dream of attending the Air Force Academy.
She said she was likely to return to the sky for another lesson as soon as Tuesday.
“I’m not too nervous now,” she said. “Maybe it will change when I sit down in the cockpit and I’m told to take off. I’m just going to do my best.”Jerome Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JeromeRCampbell.