By the time Theo Hirshfeld realized what was happening, it was too late.
It was July 1979, and Hirshfeld was on a routine flight from Casper to Sheridan County Airport when he noticed the plane circling back over Lake DeSmet, toward Buffalo. He got out of his seat, intending to say something to the crew, but the plane was already descending. It landed, hard but safely, on the then-called Buffalo Airport runway.
The plane juddered to a stop, and Western Airlines pilot Lowell Ferguson said, “I think we have a flat tire.”
Uh-uh, Hirshfeld thought. You’ve used up the runway.
Ferguson, relying on visual cues rather than electronic navigation, had mixed up the larger Sheridan County Airport with the smaller runway in Johnson County 35 miles south, where the wheels of the Boeing 737 tore the asphalt to shreds.
As the news of the mistake rippled through the 94 passengers on board, Hirshfeld rose and helped pour drinks.
“I just told the stewardesses to pour out the champagne, and everybody will be happy,” Hirshfeld said.
The incident, which could have been a disaster, ended up as only a slight inconvenience for the passengers. Everyone was bused to their destination in Sheridan, including a miffed Hirshfeld, who tried without success to get the crew to just leave him in Buffalo instead.
Even today, accidental landings happen. Between 1990 and 2014, the Associated Press of Records found there had been 150 such incidents. But this mistake wasn’t like the others. This one got people from all corners of America talking about Buffalo, Wyoming.
A crowd arrived at the Buffalo Airport the next morning to watch the crew gut the airplane in order to dig out wheels sunk deep into the runway designed for much smaller and lighter airplanes, and the attention didn’t end there. Jewelry store owner Fritz Purcell wandered Main Street in a pilot’s uniform, wearing a sign that welcomed Lowell Ferguson to Buffalo on the front and joked “I thought I was landing at Kennedy International!” on the back. Clothing store proprietor Coley Powell sold over 300 Lowell Ferguson-branded T-shirts in the first month. The Buffalo Bulletin ran a poem titled “Whoa, Dammit, Whoa,” in which Bob Peterson proclaimed that the landing was now the most significant moment in Buffalo history.
“Lowell put Buffalo on the map. / Because of him, it’ll never be the same. / He’s made us forget the Sundance Kid, / and even Butch what’s his name,” wrote Peterson.
“Good Morning America” and Walter Cronkite produced segments on the landing. Johnny Carson even brought it up on “The Tonight Show,” mockingly outraged as to how the incident could have occurred at all.
“Everyone in those parts knows that the weather vane on the feed store at Buffalo is 4 inches taller than the weather vane on the feed store at Sheridan,” Carson said.
One year later, on the anniversary of the landing that had put Buffalo on the map, the city held a “Lowell Ferguson Day” in celebration. They invited the pilot to join, but Western Airlines, which had temporarily demoted Ferguson because of the incident, disapproved.
The next year Buffalo tried again. In fear that they would once again miss out on Lowell Ferguson, the city put out a nationwide call for any person with that name to attend and be celebrated as a guest of honor.
Six Lowell Fergusons showed up, including the pilot, who brought his wife and two children to the celebration. Surrounded by “I Am Lowell Ferguson” shirts, the man himself returned to the airport that had briefly made Buffalo famous and the people that made what could have been a horrific mistake into an amusing anecdote.
Ferguson has since passed away, and the runway he destroyed was long ago repaired and extended. But the legend of Western Airlines Flight 44 survives. Hirshfeld, now an associate broker at Pearson Real Estate, is still asked to recount the fateful landing 41 years later.
“I feel very, very thankful that nobody got hurt and the plane didn’t get wrecked,” said Hirshfeld. “You can laugh now, but at the time it was very serious.”