‘It was the miracle on the levee:’ Couple who landed jet in Everglades grateful to be alive

Flight instructor Gary Solkovits was preparing to land a retired military jet at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport when he heard an unusual noise. And then, silence.

“And I became a glider,” said Solkovits, who somehow with his wife, Lois, in the seat beside him, landed the fixed-wing, single-engine jet without power on a remote levee in the Everglades Wildlife Management Area.

It was just before sunset March 16, and the sawgrass was on fire in the distance.

Solkovits, who has also flown gliders, said he had “seconds, less than a minute” between the engine’s failure and the craft’s landing.

“It was smooth!” she said. “He did the most perfect landing. If you could see how small that little levee was that took a huge jet fighter.”

The Federal Aviation Administration is still investigating the incident, a spokeswoman said Thursday.

Gary Solkovits is a flight instructor and former corporate jet pilot whose 15-year-old Fort Lauderdale company, Jet Fighters International, trains jet pilots and performs at air shows.

The levee that hosted the jet — with its 30-foot wingspan, 40-foot long fuselage and16-foot-high tail — dropped off steeply in places, he said.

“If we’d landed in muck, it would have been like quicksand, and there was a 17-foot deep canal next to that and then sawgrass,” Solkovits said.

Before the emergency landing, the jet was on its downwind leg, headed toward the airfield. But Solkovits said they were pushed far out west to wait their turn, because there were so many planes in the landing pattern.

Luckily they were not flying over a residential neighborhood when trouble began.

“It was not ideal,” Solkovits said about their impromptu runway. “It beats the alternative, put it that way. If we had crash landed or attempted a landing to the south or north of the levee, none of them is a pretty picture.”

After nine days resting in the Everglades, the jet was met at sunrise Thursday by crews from Gold Coast Heavy Hauling.

The crews left Sawgrass Recreation Park in Weston and drove 6.5 miles in reverse along the levee, north of Interstate 75 between U.S. 27 and the Sawgrass Expressway, west of Pompano Beach. In the convoy were a 30-ton truck crane and a 48-foot long Landoll trailer.

South Florida Water Management opened up gates to allow the group to pass, said Randy Seay, owner of the Opa-locka company that specializes in hauling unusually wide loads.

Mechanics dismantled the wings, tail and other parts of the jet; a crane lifted them onto the trailer.

“This was the first jet we did that didn’t crash,” Seay said. “Usually we’re picking up the pieces and it’s a sad job. But this was not.”

The jet, its parts resting in red frames on the trailer, was hauled to Opa-locka and was to travel Friday to a Lakeland repair facility to be assessed and reassembled.

It’s an expensive project: Hauling may cost up to $10,000, Seay said. The bill for a new engine wasn’t yet known, Solkovits said.

He didn’t put a price on their lives.

“Everybody who came out, the FAA and everybody, said we were really quite fortunate,” Solkovits said. “I look at it that my training kicked in and I was blessed. Otherwise I wouldn’t be talking to you.”

LTrischitta@Tribune.com, 954-356-4233 or Twitter @LindaTrischitta