Two thousand feet above rolling pasture southwest of Turlock Lake, flight instructor Ken Kwan knew he had a problem.
Kwan, 28, was in the middle of a lesson with his student, Daniel Yang, 25, of China. The men had taken off in a Cessna 152 from Castle Airport in Atwater at 9:30 a.m. and were flying over their typical training ground east of Denair and Hickman.
About 40 minutes into the lesson, and 10 miles from the nearest airport, the engine cut out and Kwan saw smoke in the cabin. The propeller stopped spinning. Kwan knew he had to land.
"At 2,000 feet, there was no way we could make it to the airport," he said. "My heart was racing. But I was trained for that."
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The plane was falling at about 500 feet a minute. So Kwan said he declared a state of emergency on the radio and surveyed the area for a safe place to land. Beneath him, rolling cow pastures spread into the distance.
"I picked a spot by the road, so rescue people could find us" in case of injury, said Kwan, who lives in Atwater but is from Los Angeles.
He scanned the ground for power lines and cows. All he was thinking, he said, was that he needed to keep his student safe and land the plane intact. Kwan went through the emergency checklist to secure the plane and land.
He turned off the fuel lines, then the electrical equipment "to avoid sparks." He popped the door open slightly, "so we can unbuckle and jump out of the airplane once we touch down," Kwan said.
Kwan remembered what he was thinking as the ground got closer: "Maintain control of the aircraft and make sure it doesn't flip over."
He couldn't land in the road because there wasn't enough room for the small plane's wings. Power lines nearby also made it a poor choice, Kwan said. He choose an upward slope just east of the road, so the incline could slow the plane. Landing downhill, he said, increases the risk of running the propeller into the ground and overturning.
As it was, the plane floated to the ground and coasted 500 to 700 feet in a field over a small hill. As he and Yang got out to wait for authorities to arrive, two other small planes circled overhead to make sure the men were safe.
It took about two minutes from the engine failure to the landing, Kwan said.
It would have been easy to flip the plane, said deputy Tom Letras of the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department, who called the landing "absolutely amazing."
"You're not landing it on an airport runway where you have a hard Tarmac," Letras said. "The ground out here is full of rabbit holes, squirrel holes and soft spots. It would be easy for him to have hit one of those, for the plane to stick and flip."
Letras was one of the first to arrive, with firefighters from the Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District.
"We were looking for a plane wreck. So we were pretty happy to see a plane on three wheels and two guys standing at the fence," Letras said. "It's definitely a relief."
Dispatchers had received a call about 10:15 a.m. for a plane down off Davis Road, on the west shore of the lake.
About 11 a.m., emergency workers were standing by the road with Kwan and Yang as they waited for a mechanic to come from their flight school to assess the damage.
Authorities said the plane experienced "catastrophic engine failure" when a rod went flying through the engine block. Officials from Kwan's school, Sierra Academy of Aeronautics, planned to take the wings off the plane, drain the fuel and load everything onto a trailer to take it to Atwater, said deputy Royjindar Singh, sheriff's spokesman.
Kwan, who has been a flight instructor and commercial pilot for two years, said he and Yang have logged about 30 hours together. Yang said he had 120 hours flying time, of the 250 hours needed to become a commercial pilot.
Kwan said Yang is one of about 200 students at the Castle campus who are learning to fly for international airlines. Yang is staying in Atwater as he trains to fly for Spring Airlines, which is based in China, Kwan said.
Kwan said he and Yang would be back in the air Wednesday, adding that, despite the emergency landing, flying is still safer than driving.
Ranch owners Rod Hooker, 47, and his mother, Barbara Rouse, 72, of Hickman drove up to congratulate Kwan on the safe landing. It wasn't the first time a plane had come down on their land, they said. They've seen a few crop dusters crash and once had a training plane land at night in a muddy lake bottom.
At the time, the family had a landing strip that was used for agricultural planes. Rouse's daughter drove up and down the strip with her headlights on to attract the pilot's attention, but he ended up in the lake bottom instead.
"It was dark, he wasn't instrument-rated and he was running out of gas," Hooker said. "He hit the mud, dug in and cracked up. He wasn't hurt though."
As they waited for flight school officials to arrive, Hooker advised Kwan to watch out for cows pastured in the same field as the plane.
"They're wild critters," Hooker said. "They'll sit there and scratch and scratch until something breaks."
Sierra officials soon pulled up in a minivan to inspect the plane, and Rouse kept a wary eye on the ridge.
"If they need me to, I'll baby-sit it until they take it away," she said, dialing a friend on her cell phone.
"Gail, come up to my place," she said into the receiver. "I have an airplane in my field, right by the gate. It lost power and did a beautiful emergency landing."
Bee staff writer Emilie Raguso can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2235.