BEVERLY — It was the scariest hour of Maggie Taraska's life.
With 60 flight hours under her belt, the 17-year-old student pilot taxied down the runway at Beverly Regional Airport and lifted off just before 5 p.m. on Sunday, embarking on her first solo cross-country trip, up to Portland, Maine. She was eager and ready to go.
But as she lifted off, something felt wrong, and then another pilot noticed something horribly awry — the right wheel had come off from her plane, a single-engine Piper PA28. That pilot quickly alerted air traffic control to the situation.
For the next 35 minutes or so, Maggie circled the airport as tower controllers and her flight instructor talked her through landing the plane back at the runway. They continued to assure her everything would be OK.
In a recording of the radio transmissions between Maggie and one of the tower controllers, the stress is evident in the Gloucester teen's voice as the situation unfolds.
After the call comes in about the missing wheel, the controller informs Maggie of the situation and asks what she intends to do.
"Can I circle back to land?" the teen replies as she confirms she's a student pilot and flying alone.
"Go ahead and circle the airport for now and we're going to get some people out to help you," the air controller responds. The woman continues to try and reassure Maggie.
"OK," Maggie replies in a shaky voice.
"Everything will be OK," the woman says.
Her instructor John Singleton eventually comes on the radio and continues to talk Maggie through landing the plane.
It was OK. It was even a "perfect landing" — according to dad Walt Taraska (who is also a pilot) and Singleton — given that she had one less wheel to work with.
"I was really scared at first," Maggie admitted Monday afternoon during a press conference with her family at Beverly Airport. "I just felt my heart sink."
But as Singleton and others talked her through it, her confidence and poise returned. "I just knew I had to fly the plane," she said. "I panicked a little bit, but you have to have confidence in your ability."
As she finally approached the runway and touched down, around 5:45 p.m., it was about the best approach Walt Taraska had ever seen, he told reporters Monday.
Granted, the plane veered off the runway and into a grassy area, where it finally came to a stop. As she was jostled about, Maggie recalled thinking: "It will stop, it has to stop, I will be fine." She feared the plane might flip, she said, but it didn't — she just hit some signs. She escaped the ordeal shaken but otherwise unharmed.
Police and fire crews had initially rushed to the scene upon learning of the situation from airport officials. As the plane circled overhead, fire crews and other first responders were positioned along Runway 9.
"I realized a lot of people thought it wasn't going to go so well," Maggie said, smiling, on Monday.
Loud cheers can be heard on the radio transmissions as she stuck the landing. Maggie said that after the plane finally stopped, she shut it down as quick as possible and got out — right into the waiting arms of her father.
"She pulled it together to do something really special," Walt Tararaska said Monday. "When I saw her (plane) approach, it was probably a better approach than I could do and I've got more (flight) hours than her."
Mom Christine drove Maggie back home to Gloucester. The two breathed a sigh of relief and just talked about what happened and some of the technical aspects of how she landed the plane. Christine said she made sure to call her mother as well to let her know Maggie was all right.
The Taraskas give high praise to Singleton, and the rest of the support crew, for their efforts.
Walt told reporters that as the plane circled overhead and he could hear Singleton and Maggie talking over the radio, coolly and calmly, he knew things would be OK. Maggie, likewise, said her confidence greatly improved once Singleton got on the radio.
"I've known John for years. He is an instructor that I would put with the best in the Air Force," said Walt, in a separate interview. "I knew that his training would get her through."
Both Walt and Christine are former Air Force intelligence officers who were stationed with fighter wings over Europe. They weren't pilots then, but they experienced a lot of different scenarios.
"A lot of this is compartmentalizing," Walt said, "putting fear to the side...and saying, 'I've done this literally hundreds of times (flying and landing).'"
Singleton, who's also the chief instructor at Beverly Flight School, said that when he heard the call Sunday evening from the other pilot, he taxied back in with his other students and hustled over to the control tower.
He said the traffic controllers did a great job as they got Maggie to circle back and maintain a safe altitude. As they all talked her through the landing, he continued to tell her to just focus on the plane and her training.
"In the recording, you can hear the stress in her voice," Singleton said. "I was telling her to keep calm and fly as normally as possible...remember her training."
In flight school, they train for emergency scenarios, although Maggie admitted there wasn't a section for when a wheel falls off the plane. "With this situation, there was nothing I could do about (that)," she said laughing. "I couldn't get the wheel back."
Maggie first started flying as a freshman in high school. She said she was partly inspired by her parents' stories and a love of flying.
The first time she did a solo flight was last year, and since then she's accumulated several hours of flight time alone in the cockpit, with a little over 60 hours total. She just turned 17 this summer and is working on getting her pilot's license.
Walt said he and Maggie actually just did the run up to the Portland International Jetport together on Labor Day. One of the requirements to get her license is to complete three solo, long-distance trips.
"I did some of the flying but she flew most of the trip," he said. "She did great and I knew she was ready to go." Sunday was her first trip by herself.
A day later, Maggie was in high spirits as she talked to reporters. She said she even had another flight tentatively scheduled for Tuesday. Her parents noted that would depend on how she's feeling.
"I still have a few butterflies," Maggie said, "we'll see how it goes. I will do my best and try not to stress out."
As for the future, she just started her senior year at Manchester Essex Regional High School and is still figuring out what she wants to do after graduation. She said Monday that flying is a hobby right now, but she's thinking about the Air Force Academy and becoming a fighter pilot. She might be a little short though, she joked.
As for the plane, the Federal Aviation Administration is conducting an investigation. The aircraft was significantly damaged in the incident.
Singleton said the FAA will determine what caused the problem with the wheel. He's been doing this for four decades, yet Sunday's events were a first for him.
"In 37 years, this is the first time I had anything happen like this," he said.