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Overcoming Tragedy

Overcoming Tragedy

September 13, 2023

One year ago, on September 9, 2022, I was in a horrific private plane crash. No, I wasn’t the pilot, nor did I own the plane. The plane was totaled, and amazingly, my friend, the pilot, and I both survived with slight injuries.

The events of the morning started with my friend flying in from Austin Executive Airport, which has an 8000’ runway, to my home airport in Bulverde Municipal, a 2890’ runway. His engine, unbeknownst to him but to his mechanic (mechanic under FAA investigation), was slowly losing horsepower due to declining compression in several cylinders. Around 7:00 a.m., he landed at Bulverde Municipal on our short runaway, clearing trees and power lines that he maneuvered professionally with over 4000 hours flying. After our briefing of the planned flight to Dallas, I snapped a picture of his plane and boarded. It was 7:35 a.m.

We taxied to the furthest south end of the runway to have the full length of the runway for departure facing the same trees and power lines he just landed over. The procedure for short-field takeoffs is adding two notches of flaps, holding the brakes, running up the engine to maximum RPMs, and releasing the brakes for quick acceleration to rotation speed to raise the nose and depart.

Before takeoffs, pilots typically identify the “go, no go” point on the runway. This is the point down the runway that if the plane has not reached rotation speed, there is sufficient runway to stop the plane. For this plane, that would be about the midway distance or at 1400’. Upon releasing the brakes, the plane, to my surprise, didn’t lurch forward as I had expected from the 6-cylinder turbocharged engine. Instead, it was a bit sluggish.

It is important for the co-pilot to remain quiet in the cockpit during takeoff and landings to not distract the pilot. Unfortunately, the midway point quickly passed, and we were still not at a rotation speed. At the end of the runway was a city road that was full of cars as parents were taking their kids to the school next to the airport.

With less than 500’ of runway remaining, the plane was just below rotation speed, and I heard my friend quietly say, “Come on, baby”. Approaching the end of the runway fence, he had just enough lift to expertly balloon the plane over the cars and power lines without stalling the wings. At about 100’ over the trees, we began descending and dangerously tittering between stall and flight. One wrong move at this critical point, we could stall a wing and plummet nose down into the ground.

Just as it appeared, we would descend into the trees, and a football field-sized opening appeared before us, the result of the farmer clearing the area for his cows. My friend touched down into this postage stamp area, now rolling across this meadow at 80 MPH towards old oak and cedar trees at the end of the meadow.

By God’s grace, we missed by inches head-on impacts into trees as both wings were instantly severed, spinning the plane at each impact and destroying every aspect of the plane by the time we stopped. It was 7 am.

It has been a year since we climbed out of the plane, unprepared for a similarly bumpy ride of emotions. My first phase of emotions was “survivor’s guilt.” It was worse surviving such a violent accident and walking away virtually unharmed. Broken legs would have been a good outcome. I never understood how one could feel guilty for surviving some near-death experience, but now I do. For me, it was the unresolved question of why I survived this crash while millions of other people around the world are dying every day. Believe it or not, one does struggle with personal value on earth while others die with more to offer their society. Life keeps us busy, and many of the post-survivor emotions get pushed down and resurface at the weirdest times.

I spoke to other pilots who survived near-death accidents and shared their recovery process. I also listen to podcasts, and one particularly helpful is titled “I Survived That”. During these episodes, the host has guests who survived amazing aviation situations. It helped to hear their stories of the accident and the experiences after. Eventually, emotions from the crash dissipated as memories faded.

The next challenge is “getting back on the horse”. The fear phenomenon of returning to the activity that threatened your life is real and harder the longer you wait. I have flown multiple times since the crash but as a passenger or “right seat” to the pilot in command. By August 2023, I had not flown a plane by myself for ten months. I realized that if I was to resume my pursuit of aviation adventures, I needed to get over the hump and take my solo flight. So, in mid-August, I decided to rent a plane for Friday, September 1, departing from the same airport at nearly the same time as the crash.

For the weeks leading up to this date, my anxiety grew, and as a result, I prepared more than normal for this flight. That morning, I got to the airport earlier than normal and took extra time to pre-flight the plane, fuel up, and get ready for the flight. Truth be told, I sat outside the pilot lounge for over an hour. I struck up a conversation with two pilots who landed to fuel their plane. After a bit, one asked, “What are you waiting for?” Apparently, my hesitation was obvious. I watched them depart and asked myself the same thing.

I did take the flight, and it went well. I flew to several airports for touch-and-go landings, communicating with tower operators. I enjoyed the flight immensely that clear sunny morning and, more importantly, shed my doubt about my flying skills. Walking back to the airport office, I thanked God for His protection a year earlier and all the blessings in my life.

What Does It Mean To Me?

We all have experienced challenges in our lives and will continue to do so in the future. Few will be life-threatening, but many will be emotionally impactful, whether it’s a close friend or family member that disappoints you, an unfavorable business experience, a car accident, or a surprise medical diagnosis. Every “life speed bump” comes with emotional reactions and a recovery process that may require professional help, conversations with friends or family, research, or your own quiet time to ”think it through.”

Remember that these events will not define you, but how you respond will. I encourage you to work through the emotions, issues, and challenges, as you will be rewarded in ways you would not expect. Most importantly, don’t carry the burden alone. Talk to those that are near you and share what you are going through. Just talking about what you are experiencing can be therapeutic.

For me, I was motivated to face my fears so I could continue experiencing the peaceful times flying over scenic areas of the country. On September 9, the anniversary of the crash, I flew a solo three-hour flight from Auburn to San Francisco through the “coastal transition” and back to Auburn. The coastal transition flight path originates in Marin County, continuing past the Golden Gate Bridge and directly over the shoreline to Watsonville. It is only accessible by small aircraft. It was a great feeling during the flight to watch the sunset with the fog rolling in, flying at 7500 feet. There was no way to experience this except from the cockpit of a small airplane, and only after I worked through my personal challenges.

Let us know your thoughts on this Weekly Brief. Have you experienced difficulties or challenges that you successfully worked through? If so, we would like to hear your story and what you learned through the process. Call or email us and let us know.