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Jun 30, 2010 10:26 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

89 year old pilot from Westhampton safely crash lands on beach

Jun 30, 2010 10:26 AM

When a small plane’s engine seized off the shoreline of Long Island on Friday afternoon, and the aircraft started diving toward the packed bathing beaches of Jones Beach, there was probably no better person to have been in the pilot’s seat than 89-year-old Stefan Cavallo.

Mr. Cavallo, a former military test pilot from Westhampton Beach, has far more experience with malfunctioning airplanes than anyone would ever want to.

In 1942, he ejected out of a fighter plane that he had intentionally flown into the heart of a thunderstorm in an attempt to figure out why America’s best bomber escorts kept disappearing in storms over Europe.

Nearly 70 years later, at about 5:20 p.m. on Friday, Mr. Cavallo again found himself in a plane that was falling from the sky. Bailing out was not an option in the Cessna, and if the plane crashed into the crowded beaches, many people could have been endangered.

“It was a pretty interesting day,” Mr. Cavallo said with a hearty laugh, safe on the ground on Sunday. The dark scab of a gash on his forehead where he hit his plane’s sun shield was unmistakable, but he otherwise seemed no worse for the wear of the crash landing.

“The main thing I was trying to do was not hurt anybody,” he said. “I would have opted to land on the beach—that would have been a cinch—but the beaches were full. The only thing that was open was this strip. If I didn’t go there, I think I would have been in a lot of trouble.”

The “strip” was a narrow corridor of dunes, barely 50 feet wide, between the crowded boardwalk at Robert Moses State Park and the bathing beaches. Mr. Cavallo lined up the plane, a four-seat Cessna he keeps at Gabreski Airport in Westhampton, and set her down almost gently, witnesses said, its belly skidding through the sand until one of the wings dipped into a dune, spinning it sideways and to a stop.

Why the engine of the plane failed is still being investigated by the Federal Aviation Administration, but at about 5 p.m., Mr. Cavallo recalls, the engine began “running very rough” and then suddenly seized—a hint that it had lost all of its oil, he said.

“It was a big, silent glider for about five or 10 minutes,” he said. “I was at 5,000 feet when the engine seized. [Air traffic controllers] were trying to get me to Islip, but I was never going to make it. I asked the FAA guy where the most emergency equipment would be available. He said the Coast Guard was in the bay and a police helicopter was on the way. He told me to contact him again when I got down to 500 feet, and when I did he said, ‘Good luck.’

“You can’t give enough credit to the guys in the control towers—they are cool customers,” he went on. “As was coming in I saw the police helicopter coming in already.”

Mr. Cavallo, a widower, was a pretty cool customer himself, apparently, as he piloted his plane toward the sandy unpopulated strip and set it down perfectly: tail wheel first and then onto its belly. “It was a pretty good landing. It was nice and smooth,” he said. “I could see the faces of the people as I was going by, peripherally. I was totally silent, so they didn’t even realize I was coming in.”

He was pulled out of the plane by beachgoers and police. He suffered deep cuts to his forehead and chin and was airlifted to Stony Brook University Hospital, but walked out on his own less than a day later. By Sunday, he was at home on Dune Road in Westhampton Beach, surrounded by black-and-white photos of himself in various military planes.

His flawless crash landing might be the icing on the cake of a long and distinguished life in flight. Mr. Cavallo learned to fly as a part of the Civilian Pilot Training Program in the run-up to World War II. Since he had an engineering degree from New York University, the Army—there was no Air Force yet—decided not to send him off to chase Japanese Zeros or escort bombers over Germany but to keep him home as a test pilot to fly the myriad new plane designs that were being cranked out by the American war machine in those days. He flew the first jets, he flew every fighter that would fight over Japan and Europe, and he flew a P-51 Mustang into a thunderstorm and brought home safely, via parachute, to North American Aviation engineers the valuable experience of watching the plane’s pistons punch holes in the plane’s sheet metal as they came apart in the turbulence.

While a pilot, Mr. Cavallo designed his own flight helmet that incorporated all the plane’s communication equipment. The first of its kind, the “Cavallo Helmet” is now on display in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

After the war, Mr. Cavallo continued flying for a living, working as a test pilot for a seaplane float manufacturer until 1950, when he went to work at his family’s business. But he continued flying, renting planes from Bart Spadaro in East Moriches for many years. About 10 years ago he and a small group of guys pitched in and bought a 1974 Cessna 210—the plane Mr. Cavallo was flying on Friday after a day trip to meet a friend for lunch in Easton, Maryland. Whether the plane will fly again or not will be up to the insurance company, Mr. Cavallo said, but there is no question about its pilot.

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"Mr. Cavallo, a former military test pilot from Westhampton Beach, has far more experience with malfunctioning airplanes than anyone would ever want to."
By Mr. Z (10776), North Sea on Jun 30, 10 8:15 PM
Do we assume that a younger person was piloting the plane and that this 89 year old with skill and experience was on board as co-pilot or passenger ? If so, congratulations to him.
By Sag (53), Sag harbor on Jul 1, 10 10:19 AM
We assume nothing, and thank Providence he was in the cockpit.
By Mr. Z (10776), North Sea on Jul 2, 10 11:04 PM
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