BRADFORD, Pa. — As Bradford and surrounding communities were enjoying Christmas Eve, Leah Costik was holding a flashlight in the cockpit of a darkened Southern Airways Express airplane ready to help the pilot fly to a scheduled landing at Bradford Regional Airport.
As it turned out, the airplane, which lost its electrical power, was diverted and Costik and another passenger on board the small Cessna Caravan 208 landed safely at Erie International Airport. Contrary to earlier reports, the Cessna was a commercial flight of Southern Airways Express, not a private plane.
While Southern Airways Express officials say the plane’s diversion to Erie from Bradford was due to poor weather — and commonplace with many airports — Costik and her family believe the incident involving a passenger ready to light a cockpit control panel with a flashlight was anything but commonplace. Costik later noted the pilot was also holding a flashlight on the controls, but needed her for emergency backup with her flashlight.
Keith Sisson, chief marketing officer for Southern Airways, said the pilot, whom he was not able to identify, first noticed there was something wrong with the airplane when a warning light came on. Adding to that was snowfall at Bradford airport, which impaired visibility.
“A warning light went on in the cockpit while they were on approach to Bradford,” Sisson explained. “As a precaution, the pilot moved to an airport (in Erie) that had better weather. The plane landed without incident and was repaired the next day … this wasn’t an incident, this was just a landing at a different airport because the circuit breaker went out.”
Sisson said he hasn’t spoken with Costik and therefore couldn’t comment on her role in assisting the pilot with a flashlight.
“It was a non-event event,” Sisson said of the incident. He noted the single-engine plane can carry nine passengers and two pilots. He confirmed the flight, however, had one pilot that evening.
“We’re authorized to fly single pilots, usually we don’t, but on Christmas Eve we gave some people time off,” Sisson remarked. He said the pilots are also trained to deal with incidents such as occurred with the flight to Bradford.
“He did what he was trained to do,” Sisson said of the pilot’s diverted flight.
Alicia Dankesreiter, Bradford Regional Airport manager, echoed Sisson’s comments. She said the airplane couldn’t land in Bradford “due to weather causing a lack of adequate visibility” for a visual approach to the airport.
“The Cessna Caravan made a safe and uneventful landing at ERI,” she added. “The passengers were brought to Bradford via a Uber (vehicle) on Christmas Eve.”
Costik shared more of the back story with her mother, Sally Costik, curator of Bradford Landmark Society, who emailed and spoke with The Era on behalf of her daughter.
In recounting the incident, Sally Costik said she and her other daughter, Cara, had driven to the Bradford airport Christmas Eve to pick up Leah, who was flying home from Marquette University in Wisconsin.
She said they were waiting at the airport for Leah’s expected 5 p.m. arrival when they learned from others in the terminal the plane wouldn’t be landing in Bradford because of the poor visibility.
Later, after hearing of possible diversions for the flight to Pittsburgh and Cleveland, they learned the airplane would land in Erie via a text message from Leah.
“Leah managed to send a text to Cara, saying basically, ‘The plane has lost all power — no lights, we’re heading towards Erie, and I am holding a flashlight … ‘ She wasn't kidding,” Sally Costik said of her daughter’s communication. “(Leah) was sitting directly behind the pilot, holding the emergency flashlight.”
Leah Costik also provided a few comments on the incident to The Era, noting she held the emergency flashlight ready to help the pilot, who also held a flashlight on the controls.
“There was a flash of light and then all the instrumentation went dead,” Leah Costik said of the initial black-out in the plane. “And then pilot was on his headset and kept shaking his head and then pulled out a flashlight. Then it started getting cold and he said, ‘We have a problem and I need your help.’
“Then he said, ‘Reach in the bag underneath your feet and get the flashlight,” she remarked.
Leah Costik noted that as there was no heat in the plane, she became quite cold as she had stowed her coat in her luggage. Despite being very cold, Leah told her mother she never let go of the flashlight just in case the pilot needed her help.
“He is like a hero, he was calm and really amazing,” Leah Costik said of the pilot. “The first thing when we landed, he wanted to get us someplace warm.”
When the Cessna landed in Erie, all other airplanes had been cleared off the runways and emergency and security vehicles were waiting for them.
Afterwards, the two passengers and pilot were driven back to Bradford in a Uber vehicle.
“All is fine,” Sally Costik said of the incident. “Ironically, it was exactly 50 years ago Christmas Eve that the first Allegheny Airlines plane crashed near Mount Alton” killing 20 of the 47 people on board. She was referring to the Dec. 24, 1968, airplane crash that had been destined for Bradford Airport, but never made it.
As for her return trip home Sunday, Leah Costik said she plans to take a flight with her sister out of Bradford airport.
“I’m going to fly back out of there with (Southern Airways) because I figure what is the likelihood that this will happen again,” she said. “My sister is flying with me, so we’re double gambling.”