I was afraid to fly, even on commercial airlines. One day, I was coming home from work, and I decided I was going to overcome my fear. I signed up for lessons to learn how to fly a plane. The first time I went out with an instructor, I came back and my knuckles were white from grabbing the yoke so hard. I was afraid to look out the windows.
When we got back, I asked to buy a block of lessons. The instructor didn’t think I was going to make it, because I was so scared. But I wanted to commit myself to it. Even before I got my pilot license, I bought a plane. I thought this would make me commit to flying. That was 12 years ago, and I’ve overcome my fear. I love flying.
In March, Brian McGreen, a friend from flight school, and I flew to Youngstown for supper at a Mexican restaurant. It was a pleasure flight. On the way back, we were in no hurry, just relaxing. We were going here and there, seeing the sights. We could see the Cleveland skyline. It was so pretty. I was looking at golf courses from 4,500 feet up, just relaxing and chitchatting.
Then the engine stopped.
We looked at each other in amazement. It’s a nightmare of every pilot. You always wonder what would happen if your engine stopped midflight. We were only 15 minutes away from the destination. It’s probably a 30-minute flight, total.
We tried to restart the engine but we couldn’t. At that point, the protocol is for the more experienced pilot to take over. Brian’s a captain; he flies for a living, and I just do this for fun, so he took control.
We called air traffic control at Akron-Canton and declared a mayday. They told us to go to Portage County Regional Airport. The runway was in sight as we turned toward that heading, but we weren’t sure if we could make it.
The only way to stay aloft is to maintain a certain glide speed. And the only way you can do that without an engine is by raising and lowering the nose. We did that. In the meantime, I tried to restart the engine and look for places to land.
Had we landed right away, we would have had some pretty big fields to choose from, but we thought we could make it to the airport. The closer we got, the more we had to contend with. Trees. Houses. Buildings. Power lines.
We saw a group of trees in front of the runway, and we were dropping pretty quickly. We thought we would probably run into those trees if we went for the runway. At the last second, we decided to go for a small field.
We were controlling the airplane until we got to about 80 feet and we turned. At that point, we were dropping like a stone from about eight stories up. We were more passengers than we were pilots by then.
We hit a big ditch. It ripped off my front landing gear and caused my plane to spin 180 degrees. We careened and bounced around, hit more ditches and the field. By the time we came to rest, my front landing gear was sheared off. My right wing was sheared off. The fuselage was completely bent. The cowling was intact but the propeller had wrapped itself around it. My cockpit area split open like an eggshell.
We hit with such force. It didn’t knock us out, but it left us groggy. I don’t know what it’s like to fall off an eight-story building, but that’s what I’d have to compare it to.
I called my wife, Reneé, immediately. I told her I was OK, but I crashed my plane. I probably should have phrased that a little better, because she was scared.
I had a broken tailbone, a swollen lip and a few scratches on my hands. Brian had more injures than I did. His head hit the canopy. He had a swollen, egg-size bump on his head. Really, though, we walked away unscathed considering what we went through.
Death never entered my mind, but I realize now how lucky we are. Since the crash I’ve been cutting out articles from the newspaper. “Three Die in Small Plane Crash.” “Three Die in Cincinnati Plane Crash.” “Two Die in Mid-air Crash.”
I’m still not afraid of flying, but, boy, we were lucky.