The engine of the recreational airplane trembled a half-mile above the gray Chesapeake Bay. The pilot checked his flight instruments and glanced at his two boys, ages 4 and 8. Both were calm in the 26-foot aircraft.
No reason to worry, Christopher Curry told himself as he cruised toward Annapolis at about 125 mph.
Then the single engine shuddered and smoked. Bits fell off in the sky. The propeller slowed.
To Curry, an experienced Marine Corps pilot, the signs were clear: This plane is going down.
This Thanksgiving, there’s plenty to be thankful for in one Odenton home. Because two weeks ago, on a cold, cloudless afternoon, the Currys fell from the sky, crash-landed their airplane on the freeway — and walked away unharmed.
Curry, a 32-year-old captain in the Marines, flies Harrier jets for a living. He came home last summer from a deployment in Okinawa, Japan, and soon returned to the air — with his sons. They would take off from Tipton Airport and cruise across the bay to Cambridge for crab melts.
Flying had always taken Curry away from Drake and Cameron. Now, it drew them all together.
With them, flying was new again, he said. He experienced again the rush, the way the constraints of ground and gravity fell away, the freedom and power of cleaving through sky.
The Curry brothers are fearless, their father said. Cameron, the younger boy, was taking a helicopter tour of Baltimore last summer when he reached for the controls. Drake, in second grade, has decided he will fly jets like his dad.
Christopher Curry has flown for more than a decade. He was a year out of Arundel High School when he first climbed into a cockpit at Tipton Airport in Odenton. His 20th birthday gift was aerobatics lessons: loops, spins, whirls. He felt the G-forces tugging his cheeks down.
After Salisbury University, he joined the Marines and went to flight school in Pensacola, Fla. In Corpus Christi, Texas, he learned to dogfight, in Cherry Point, N.C., to pilot Harrier jets.
“I can’t stay out of the cockpit for too long,” he said.
They flew about 10 times last summer, the captain and his boys, on pleasure trips across the bay. From 4,000 feet, they saw the Eastern Shore as a patchwork of farmland and the Bay Bridge as a ribbon.
On Nov. 10, a Friday, Drake’s school let out early. There was no soccer or music lessons on the boys’ schedules. Curry suggested they fly away.
With Drake buckled in the passenger seat and Cameron in the back, the father guided the single-engine Socata Tobago down the runway at Tipton Airport and eased its 1,600 pounds into a breezy sky.
The family flew to the shore and saw the treetops painted with autumn. Forty-five minutes in, they were flying back when Curry noticed the slight tremble in the engine.
It was almost 3 p.m. They were traveling west, approaching Annapolis. The trembling worsened. In minutes, the plane was shaking, rattling. White smoke seeped into the cockpit. Small debris, shredded rubber hosing, fell from the engine.
The propeller slowed. Curry pushed the prop lever: nothing.
The Marine Corps captain had trained for this. He reduced speed, calmly.
The plane lost altitude, flying slow above Annapolis. Curry looked at his boys. Drake seemed unconcerned; Cameron was asleep.
Tipton was too far away. Curry pointed the plane toward Lee Airport near Annapolis. He radioed air traffic control.
“I’m an emergency aircraft … pending engine failure … I’m flying in direct.”
The engine slowed more, then stopped. He was at 1,400 feet, falling fast. He could glide in. But would he reach the runway?
Curry pointed the nose of his plane down. He had to maintain about 75 mph to prevent a stall. The plane shook violently.
Now, Cameron was awake and scared. Drake was crying. Curry needed more speed, more altitude — more time. The trees rose up, bigger and bigger.
During such emergencies, pilots must make their own runways, instructor Douglas Williams tells students at the Community College of Baltimore County. He teaches them to find an unplowed field, perhaps an empty road.
Some small planes can glide two miles from 5,000 feet.
“It doesn’t just fall out of the sky,” Williams said.
Curry strained to see through the smoke in his cockpit. A landfill loomed ahead: too uneven to land. Then came Annapolis Waterworks Park — all trees. The father imagined the plane shredded by treetops, his boys tumbling down through branches.
The plane came low across westbound Route 50 in Annapolis. Dan Gilmore was driving a Toyota Highlander to a Washington Capitals game.
“He said, ‘Oh my God. Look at that!’” says his wife, Nancy Gilmore. “It was probably 20 feet above us.”
Ahead of the airplane stretched the eastbound Route 50 exit ramp to Aris T. Allen Boulevard. Curry was flying head-on into traffic. There was nowhere else, he thought.
Pick a lane … Zero margin for error.
The airplane stall alarm was shrieking when Curry touched down in the empty right lane. “Hold on,” he shouted, throwing his arm across Drake’s tiny chest.
One wing clipped a light pole. The plane spun, hit a guardrail and crumpled. The family lurched against their seat belts and rocked back.
The father looked at his boys. They sat in stunned silence, unharmed.
“We’re alive,” he said.
“We’re alive,” his older son repeated.
Small plane crashes are rare: There are fewer than six for every 100,000 hours in the sky, according to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association in Frederick.
Curry still doesn’t know what caused the engine to fail. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating.
This Thanksgiving, he is thankful for a passerby who stopped and wrapped his boys in a big coat. He’s thankful for a woman who played them cartoons on her phone as firefighters arrived.
And he’s thankful for the resilience of his fearless boys.
As Curry was driving them home after the crash, Drake spoke up.
He asked when they could go flying again.