A car struck and killed retired Northwest Airlines pilot and longtime St. Paul resident Carl Simmons during his after-lunch walk Jan. 29 near his wintertime condo in Orange Beach, Ala. He was 82.
The tragic accident came practically 36 years to the day after Capt. Simmons heroically maneuvered a suddenly crippled Boeing 727 into a safe landing at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport — narrowly avoiding a tragedy that easily could have claimed the lives of 52 passengers and nine crew members onboard Northwest Flight 573.
"He was Sully before there was a Sully — only difference was Dad made it back to the runway instead of the Hudson River," said Charlie Simmons, the younger of Carl's two sons, referring to Capt. Chesley Sullenberger deftly ditching his Airbus A320 into the river in 2009 after losing his engines to a flock of geese, saving 155 lives.
Simmons' quick decisionmaking on Jan. 26, 1985, earned him the Superior Airmanship Award from the national Air Line Pilots Association, which he received from Vice President George Bush in Washington, D.C.
But Simmons' lifesaving role won little attention at the time. The Minneapolis Star and Tribune ran a brief on Page 3B about an emergency landing. Charlie Simmons said financially troubled Northwest hushed up the story at the time to avoid negative publicity.
Fortunately, the airline taped a 16-minute in-house video interview with Simmons, who later recounted the frightful day to the Wall Street Journal in 1989.
"The tower said, 'Northwest, you're on fire, you're on fire … I thought: This is not our lucky day,' '' Simmons recalled in the video.
First officer Mike Gadient was at the helm on takeoff for the flight to Dallas. But after a loud bang and thumping noise, with Flight 573 struggling to reach 150 feet in the air, "Capt. Simmons instantly took a series of actions that went against normal procedures," the Journal reported.
Simmons told Gadient, "I've got it, declare an emergency," and took the plane back. That was his first unorthodox move, but Simmons wasn't worried about doing things by the book.
"The book didn't cover this. ... We were improvising the entire time because there was no scenario ever written for an example," he said.
Quickly realizing that two of his 727's three engines were failing, Simmons said "we had a very small window, maybe 10 seconds, until we were going to stall."
Rather than leaving the wing flaps down to achieve maximum lift, Simmons retracted them. Instead of pointing the plane's nose up to climb, he aimed it down at the risk of crashing into the nearby river or woods.
He took both steps to pick up speed, which he hoped would enable him to climb enough to bring the plane back around for a landing.
"I knew if I could get 20 (more) knots, we had it made," Simmons said. "But if I couldn't, then it was all over."
The airplane wouldn't turn to the right, so he banked into a downwind left turn toward the runway, rising no more than 1,500 feet.
In the back of the plane, passengers — including other Northwest pilots and mechanics on the flight — were becoming hysterical. One pilot told his wife that they were going to crash.
But Simmons' strategy worked. Safely on the ground minutes later, he stood by the door as passengers deplaned. People were pretty shook up, he said. Amid the sobbing and weeping, the pilot who had told his wife they were going to die gave Simmons a smothering bear hug.
"They didn't know the seriousness of the event, and I downplayed that as much as I could," Simmons said. "But they knew something was surely amiss, something very serious."
A native of Hannibal, Mo., Simmons graduated from the University of Missouri and earned his Air Force wings in 1962. He joined Northwest in 1967, piloting and serving as an instructor for 31 years.
On a 1968 flight to Miami, he met flight attendant Marilyn McKusick from Olivia, Minn., who married him the following year; they raised two sons and had six grandchildren.
Simmons was buried Feb. 12 at St. Peter's Cemetery in Mendota, just across the Minnesota River from where he safely landed his 727 on that unforgettable day.
"You can come up with endless combinations" in training, Simmons told the Journal. But sometimes you must "draw the line," he said, and go with your instincts.
"The whole flight from takeoff to touchdown was seven minutes," said Mary Taft, 66, an Edina flight attendant who recently retired after 42 years and said the 1985 flight was her scariest.
Simmons said he regretted not being able to tell Taft and the other flight attendants what was happening, but "the most important thing we had to do was fly the airplane."
Said Taft: "We were barely skimming over the houses when we heard what sounded like a car backfiring and we started shaking. I'm so lucky Carl Simmons was the pilot. He did all the right things."
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: http://strib.mn/MN1918.