COLUMN: Joseph’s jet

By Brad Dison

At 8:30 p.m. on November 24, 1992, a Gulfstream II jet piloted by John Joseph and co-piloted by John Messina, took off from Fort Lauderdale, Florida en route to Rockland, Maine.  If everything went as expected, the flight would take two-and-a-half hours.  They planned to land in Maine at 11:00 p.m.  This $5 million twin-engine business jet was rated to carry a maximum of 19 passengers in addition to the pilot and co-pilot.  On this flight, only about a half dozen passengers were onboard, including Joseph’s wife of just 14 months and their seven-month-old son.  The pilot and co-pilot had thousands of flight hours between them.  Joseph had been flying since 1978 and held several different jet and non-jet pilot’s licenses. 

As you probably guessed, everything did not go as expected.  At about 10:15 p.m., with only 45 minutes left to in the trip, a bearing in the jet’s left electrical generator failed.  In case of a generator failure, the jet’s electrical system would automatically draw power from the other engine’s electrical generator.  When this jet’s computer system switched to the right generator, a power surge in the electrical system tripped a circuit breaker.  The second generator shut down.  Without power from the generators, the jet relied on two small nickel cadmium batteries to power the jet’s radios, navigational gear, and other operational systems.  When fully charged, these two batteries could only power the jet for about five minutes. 

No alarms sounded when the two generators failed.  Joseph and Messina only recognized that both generators had failed when the instrument panels began to dim.  It had been about five minutes since the generators failed.  Time was running out.  As soon as Joseph was aware that there was a problem, he contacted the Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center, declared an emergency, and asked for a heading to Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C.  Before he could get a response from air traffic control, the two nickel cadmium batteries had exhausted their power supply and the jet’s entire electrical system failed.  Like most jets, the Gulfstream II had a backup for the backup for the backup in case of electrical failure.  Joseph tried to activate an instrument called a transformer rectifier to generate power but it, too, malfunctioned.  Joesph and Messina immediately realized the severe trouble the crippled jet was in.  All of the electrical navigational equipment had shut down, as had many of the jet’s crucial systems, such as electrically assisted flaps and brakes.     

The jet was nearly eight miles high, traveling at about 400 miles per hour, and was approaching one of nation’s busiest airspaces with no radio communications, no navigational equipment, and no interior or exterior lights.  The jet’s transponder, which transmits information such as the jet’s identification number, heading, speed, and altitude to air traffic controllers, also ceased to operate.  Air traffic controllers could only see an unidentified blip on their radar screens.  When Air traffic controllers realized Joseph’s jet’s electrical system had malfunctioned, they tried to contact Joseph by way of an emergency hand-held transceiver, another piece of emergency equipment, but the jet did not have one of the emergency transceivers.   

In an act of desperation, an air traffic controller directed the pilot of a commercial jet to help locate Joseph’s jet.  USAir Flight 1729 was traveling at the same speed as Joseph’s jet at an altitude of 20,000 feet.  They were unsure of Joseph’s jet’s altitude.  The air traffic controller told USAir pilot of Joseph’s jet’s electrical malfunction and said he would not be lit up.  The USAir jet pilot saw Joseph’s jet directly in front of him about two miles away.  They were heading directly toward each other.  The air traffic controller held his breath as the symbol for the USAir jet and the blip converged.  He breathed a sigh of relief when the symbols for the jets had passed each other and continued in opposite directions.

Back in Joseph’s jet, Messina shone a small flashlight in the cockpit for them to see by.  Joseph had only a tiny magnetic compass and a small emergency attitude indicator which showed the relationship of the airplane’s wings in relation to the horizon for navigating the jet.  There was no moon in the night sky on this night and all Joseph and Messina could see below them were dense clouds.  In the distance, Joseph noticed a glow in the dense cloud cover.  This, he surmised, had to be Washington, D.C.  He aimed the jet towards the glow.  At about 12,000, Joseph’s jet was engulfed by thick clouds.  He continued his descent towards the glow.  The jet continued its slow descent, but the clouds did not thin.  Finally, at about 1,000 feet, Joseph’s jet broke out of the clouds.  The first thing Joseph saw was a brightly lit obelisk in the night sky.  It was the Washington Monument.  Both pilot and co-pilot were relieved at the welcome sight.  Joseph aimed the jet toward the Washington National Airport.  Air Traffic controllers had rerouted the other jets from the area in anticipation of an emergency landing. 

Joseph’s jet was not safe yet.  They held their breath as they tried to lower the landing gear by using the emergency extension system.  Another sigh of relief.  This emergency system worked.  They were unable to lower the jet’s flaps, which would normally slow a jet on approach.  They touched town on the runway at the dangerous speed of about 170 miles per hour.  The only brake they had was the emergency brake, which failed to respond until fully engaged.  The locked tires only lasted a second or two before all four of them blew out.  Somehow, the jet did not flip as it skidded to a stop.  Finally, the harrowing ordeal was over. 

Although terrifying, Joseph still flies his jets.  He owns several.  Throughout the emergency, air traffic controllers failed to realize that Joseph, the pilot of the Gulfstream II jet, would have been instantly recognizable had they seen his face.  You and I have watched him in “Welcome Back, Kotter,” “Grease,” and “Saturday Night Fever.”  The pilot who miraculously guided the jet to safety, despite horrifying odds, whose middle name is Joseph, was John Travolta.


Source:  James, Mike. 1995. “STAYIN’ ALIVE.” Washington Post, March 26, 1995.