Surviving a Plane Crash


As a flight instructor, we routinely inundate our students with emergency procedures. File a flight plan, carry appropriate survival gear and equipment, properly preflight and check all systems, use your seatbelt, fly the airplane first, aviate, navigate and communicate, find the best place to land clear of obstacles, use emergency checklist if time permits, crack the door open so it doesn’t get jammed on impact – all sage advice.

We pilots become complacent. I was on a photography mission covering some nearby towns with intentions of returning to our starting point at the conclusion of the flight. We had full fuel tanks with 4 hours available for an approximately 2 hour planned flight.  We were flying near other airports along the route, so we had ‘safety’ built into our flight in the event something unexpected happened. We had our cell phones and it was a daytime, clear VFR flight with light winds. For these reasons, we had developed a false sense of security and chose not to file a flight plan.

The flight was going well and we got a few epic shots! It was a bit bumpier than we had expected. It was only light turbulence, surely nothing to be alarmed about, but it did make the photography work a bit more challenging. We slowed down to capture some of the photos and we circled a few more times than planned to make sure we got the shot we intended. Still well within our 2 hours, we were about 40 miles away from home base when we decided to land at the next target’s airport for a break. I greased the landing, and we stopped into the FBO and got a soda. All was well with the world.

There was a gorgeous bright red Zenon Gyroplane on the ramp. They had just returned from a scenic flight and I had been talking with the owners on occasion, over the last year or so, to get a ride. It was a clear and a million day, meaning the blue skies and great visibility were unlimited. There was light wind with a bit of chop, but like I said, nothing out of the ordinary. “Wanna go for a quick ride in the pattern?” he asked? “I can’t, I said, “we’re on a mission and I have to pick up my daughter at 3 P.M. from school.” My photographer chimed in, “Its ok, its only 1 P.M. and we only have a couple of shots to get and we’re only 40 miles from home.” Are you sure? “I inquired, “there’s only two seats so you can’t go.” “It’s ok,” he affirmed, “I’ll get some photos for you, and you’ll only be less than 10 minutes in the pattern.” “Ok,” I said excitedly, “Let’s go!”

We did a walk-around and safety briefing. It had been a long time since I had been just a passenger in the front seat of something I couldn’t fly myself. It was a very nice machine, shiny and only a couple years old. The pilot, a retired engineer, had gotten his check-out a year prior and had flown regularly. We got in, donned our 4-point harness and started up. We did a short run-up and set instruments, but since he had just returned from a flight, everything was ready to go. We taxied and made a radio call for take-off, with the disclaimer that it takes 90 seconds for the rotor to spin up to take-off RPMs. Take-off went as expected, a short distance of a few hundred feet and we were climbing. It crabbed into a light crosswind and the view was amazing! There were no wings, so I had a virtually unobstructed view of the ground below us and the blue sky above us for miles!

At 1 minute into the flight, something didn’t feel right. The pilot was super focused, more than I would expect of even a low-time licensed pilot on a routine flight in the pattern. “I think we’re losing power” he said. Not having any experience in gyroplanes, I was unable to help. I was unfamiliar with the gauges and V-speeds and had been clear that I was merely a passenger on this flight from the start. He had no expectations of me, but he was concerned and quickly operating through a mental emergency checklist. We were only about 500′ and there were trees and a ravine directly in front of us, then closer to us was a road with power lines and off to the right was a clear field. I knew we didn’t have the time or altitude to make it back to the runway, but the field seemed possible. I pointed it out. “I’m trying” he said. As the rate of descent continued to increase, it became clear that we weren’t going to make the field. “Can we make the road?” I pointed out the power lines and he was well aware, but there was little we could do. “I’m trying” he said, calmly. He was still focused and flying the gyroplane the whole time.

Still trying to process the gravity of the situation (giving that expression new meaning for me) all I could think about was getting back to pick up my daughter at 3p.m. My wife was at work and knew I’d be flying that morning. I’ve been flying for 20 years and we know the schedules are fluid, but she had been reassured that I would be back well before 3 p.m. to pick up our daughter. I had been busy writing a book of late and the number of tasks that entails, so I was usually home after lunch for publisher meetings. I had no time to dig out my phone and call her to let her know in the few seconds going down. Now I know exactly what they mean when your life flashes before you eyes. It was not the romantic, endearing love and beauty of the family we had built, or relishing in the accomplishments I had achieved. I suppose it is different for everyone depending on where they are at in their life, but for me, it was concern for all of the errands I had planned that afternoon, and phone calls I needed to make when I got home, and making sure I picked up my daughter!  I was worried about not being there for my wife when she got home and all the future plans we had together.  It was also concern for getting the airplane back to home base where my vehicle was, and my mental list of tasks I needed to complete. As a Christian, I found peace knowing somehow God would provide.

I braced for a jolt or the potential to be flipped over when we struck the power lines. We came down through them and I didn’t even feel it. Then we crashed in the ditch between the road and the field. There was a loud crunching sound and it was a pretty hard landing, but the seats and 4-point harness did their job and moving parts flew all around outside the plane and we rolled over onto the right side, my side, of the plane. He turned off the motor. We smelled fuel and could see smoke, which gives one a sense of urgency to exit the vehicle. The pilot was hanging from his harness and I had to help him get free and get his legs positioned on my door so he could stand up and climb out. Once free, he shut off the fuel, got his door open and climbed out, and then I got out after him.

The fire had started about 20 yards from us as a result of the downed power lines. As I was climbing out, I saw the FBO Manager careening over the hill in his police auction dodge charger, with my photographer in the passenger seat. He asked if we were ok. “Yes” I answered. And then I considered whether that was really true. My back, leg and arm hurt, but I was pretty sure that was from the incident earlier in the week when I had a hard fall down the stairs in my home. Stairs are dangerous. So are ladders. And planes. I was alive and clear of the accident. Emergency vehicles arrived promptly. The fire department put the fire out, the police started their reports and the ambulance crew checked out vitals and made sure we were indeed, ok. Now 2 p.m., gotta get my daughter.

I checked out with all of the emergency services, signing a release of care for the ambulance, giving my contact information to the police and thanking the fire crew. I got a ride back up the hill to the airport with my photographer and went to go preflight the plane. He said, “I’m not going.” “But,” I said, “your car is back at the home airport, how are you going to get home?” He was shaken and was not about to get into an airplane. I understood and respected his decision, but I ‘needed’ to go get my daughter and get the rented airplane back to its home airport. I did a preflight and and uneventful take-off.

I flew directly over the scene of the crash and realized I probably shouldn’t be flying. I felt ok, but I could also tell I was running on adrenaline. I climbed to a respectably safe altitude and went through my checklists on the flight back. I checked the weather and made the radio calls. I landed safely and parked the airplane, glad the return went well.

“How was your flight?” The FBO manager at the home airport asked. “Well,” I started, “The flight in your plane went wonderfully, but the other flight didn’t end so well.” I was ill-prepared for the conversation that would ensue. I left to get back to pick up my daughter. I picked her up ok, an uneventful routine transportation to her, and the happiest I had ever been to see her for me! “How was your day?” I asked her. She told me all about her favorites – recess, lunch, and music that day. She also loves math and reading, but it’s not popular for kids to admit to that, so she always avoids it coyly. I was ill-prepared for telling her about what had happened, with her dad being a pilot and all.

I was ill-prepared for the call that the media was on their way to my house to talk with me about the crash. Apparently my photographer was well-connected with the media and had broken the story. So, there was that. A film crew and the largest news channel personality arrived on my lawn and started setting up to interview me about the crash.

I was ill-prepared for what to tell my wife when she came home and saw the news crew sitting in the yard. I was less prepared for the speed at which news travels, as another media outlet had posted a preliminary story on social media, and one of my wife’s co-workers had seen the story and forwarded it to her with the question, “Is this your husband?” “Everything is fine, I’m going to talk to the news about what happened today and then we’ll have supper and I’ll tell you all about it.” “Ok” she said, with an eye roll.

So while our flight training prepares us for the steps required to adequately negotiate an emergency situation, it is completely disconnected from the life-skills required to handle the aftermath. In the simplest form, it requires a communication system that informs those we’re close to of what we are doing and what we need to do so they are able to fill-in or pick up where we left off in the event they ever need to. Most importantly, don’t take any day, or any flight, for granted.

A retired veteran and stay-at-home dad, Jeff worked during his ‘spare’ time to earn his civilian flight instructor certificate and then used his time to write about his experiences. Author of the book Open Air available May 15th 2017, Jeff uses the book to help anyone with an unaided interest in aviation by providing a unique perspective of insights from his vantage point as a flight instructor, and his flying experiences over the last 20 years.

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