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Alexandria pilot pulls off safe belly landing

ALEXANDRIA - As Fred Bursch took off in his twin-engine, six-passenger airplane from the Alexandria Airport Wednesday afternoon, he heard a strange noise when he retracted his landing gear - a clunk.

This signaled the start of a four-hour ordeal that put Bursch's piloting skills to the test.

Bursch, a long-time resident of Alexandria and owner of Bursch Travel, was headed to Brainerd, Minn., to have an instrument check performed on his airplane. He took off around 11:15 a.m., flying over Brainerd about 20 minutes later.

That is when the trouble started - his landing gear wouldn't deploy, Bursch explained in a phone interview Wednesday evening.

After contacting his mechanic in Brainerd, who was somewhat familiar with his Beach Craft plane, Bursch flew out of the area for a while so that he could try and get his landing gear to come down.

Luckily, there was about three hours worth of fuel in the plane. Time was on Bursch's side.

He received advice from his mechanic and other people in the avionics shop, but nothing seemed to be working.

"It [the landing gear] just wasn't working like it should," he said. "I even tried manually cranking it down, but to no avail."

He made the decision to fly back to Alexandria and contact airport personnel in Alexandria to see if they could help.

After trying several things, including resetting the circuit breaker, Bursch realized that at some point, he would have to land the plane - minus his landing gear.

To help burn off fuel, Bursch kept his plane in the air, flying in little loops - from Garfield to Starbuck and back again - for about two hours.

"I kept thinking, 'Is there something I'm missing? There's got to be something.' " he said. "I was talking to the mechanics in Alexandria quite a bit and it became quite obvious that I would have to come in and land."

While in the air, there was one other person Bursch talked to - his wife, Terri. He calmly told her he was flying back to Alexandria and that he was having some problems with his landing gear. He thought she might want to go to the Alexandria Airport and wait for him.

After she got there and talked with airport personnel, Bursch said she was "reassured that pilots are trained for this."

Because it was evident Bursch was going to have to make an emergency crash landing, emergency crews were called out and waiting at the airport. Bursch could see them on the ground as he was circling above.

Flying over the Starbuck area one last time, Bursch contacted the airport and said he would be arriving in about eight minutes.

Reviewing his checklist for what he said was the "umpteenth time," Bursch prepared himself for the landing. As he got closer, he deployed the flaps and pulled all the power, shutting his engines off.

As he crossed the Highway 29 and Highway 27 intersection near the airport, he was just a couple hundred feet off the ground.

"There was a strong northwest wind that worked in my favor," said Bursch, explaining that on a typical landing, he would be going about 100 miles per hour, but in his situation, he was only going about 75 miles per hour.

In the last five or 10 seconds, he shut everything off, and as he got closer and closer, the wind developed a cushion and the flaps slowed him down, the nose of the plane settling in, he said.

"There was obviously a disconcerting sound when I landed," Bursch said. "But it was a much smoother landing than expected."

Bursch said he wasn't thrown around at all and that as soon as the plane stopped, he ripped off his seat belt, jumped out of the plane and made a beeline toward the airport.

His first few steps were quite swift for fear of the plane exploding, but it didn't, and his steps slowed down.

"I was obviously very pleased to see my wife," said Bursch. She was waiting with the airport manager in a pickup truck near the runway.

"We're so happy he's home," she said.

After he was on the ground safe and sound, Bursch got to watch a video that someone took of his landing.

"I was pretty impressed. As I touched down, I came to a peaceful stop," he said.

Bursch wasn't the only one impressed with the landing.

Alexandria Police Chief Rick Wyffels, who was on the scene the whole time, said, "The pilot did a fantastic job. It was a spectacular, beautiful landing...I'd fly with him any day."

Wyffels said that after the police department was notified of a plane coming in for an emergency crash landing, the police department, Alexandria Fire Department and North Ambulance were called to the scene.

The police department set up inner and outer perimeters, and was prepared for what could have happened.

"We had plenty of warning," said the chief. "So this was the first time we were this prepared. We're very happy for him and his family."

Bursch noted that this landing was much more peaceful than one he had about 20 years ago with a single-engine airplane.

A wheel broke off while landing and Bursch couldn't steer the plane.

"That one was much more dramatic than this one," he recalled.

So will the pilot, who has about 35 years of experience and well over 3,000 hours of flying, take to the skies again?

"Just like when you are thrown from a horse, you get back on and ride again. I will go out with an instructor to make sure I am comfortable. But it won't be tomorrow," said Bursch.