07/16/2012 11:45 EDT | Updated 09/15/2012 05:12 EDT

Plane lands safely in dark on freeway east of Sarnia

A small plane with five people aboard made an emergency landing on Highway 402 Friday night east of Sarnia, Ont.

The pilot, Leo P. Arseneau, advised emergency crews on the ground that he had experienced electrical failure and that the battery for his radio and navigation equipment had died.

Arseneau, who was flying with family to a birthday party in Sarnia, was left with essentially only a compass.

The runway lights would not illuminate because there was no on-board signalling available on the plane. Normally, the plane would send a signal to the airport to illuminate the runway. Without instruments to rely on, he kept circling, trying to find the Sarnia airport.

Because it was just before 10 p.m., there were no employees immediately available to turn on the runway lights manually at Sarnia's Chris Hadfield Airport.

"You activate the runway lights from the air. You can’t do that when you don’t have electrics," Arseneau said.

The pilot said he had lost contact with Toronto Air Traffic Control.

Arseneau further advised police that he was flying blind in the darkness, did not know where he was, and he thought he was possibly running out of fuel.

"I could find it just by looking for it [during the day]. I know approximately where it is from my charts," he said of Sarnia's airport, but it was dark. "We were generally in the right area. But in the dark, everything looks like a runway."

Police began guiding him to the Sarnia airport, where emergency services were waiting.

Moments after the call, however, the pilot experienced sputtering engines and told police he was making an emergency landing on the westbound lanes of the highway.

Arseneau said he was deliberately following a two-lane highway toward Sarnia but needed more room to land. He decided to look for Highway 402.

The plane landed on the highway between Oil Heritage Road and Mandaumin Road.

Arseneau landed the plane between westbound cars — several behind him and a few in front. He also avoided an overpass.

"I got lucky. If there is no car beneath me, it’s behind me and it's not going to catch up," said Arseneau, who was landing at about 130 km/hr or so. "I was afraid of overtaking cars in front of me."

Arseneau has been flying since 1989 and has more than 5,000 hours in the air. He landed safely in the left-hand lane. His son, who was aboard, used a flashlight to warn traffic there was a plane sitting on the highway. Unfortunately, a van carrying five people and the plane collided on the highway, but no one was seriously injured.

Transport Canada and the OPP are investigating.