Love those planes
When I was growing up my grandfather was my greatest role model. He was so sweet, kind and loved talking with everyone around him. He would also tell me stories of what it was like to be a pilot in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. Because I wanted to be like him so much, I thought that if I copied what he did, I would become like him.
Pretty naïve, but hey, what else is a kid to think?
My love for airplanes was strong because of this emotional connection that I had made. I built model airplanes and hung them from my ceiling. I watched the movie ‘Top Gun’ and thought I would become an Air Force or Navy pilot flying jets.
I took pilot ground school when I was 15 years old and started to learn how to fly soon after. I applied to the Air Force Academy (and luckily) did not get in. Instead I got into Purdue’s Aviation Technology program and got my pilot’s license a few days before I would leave for college, I was 17 years old still.
The summer after my sophomore year, I was still 19 and had made a decision to not be a professional pilot but still enjoyed flying. I was taking lessons to get my Instrument rating and enjoying just flying for fun. That summer, my two younger cousins came to visit and I thought it would be a great idea to take them flying. I wanted to go one time around the pattern, land and see if they liked it. It was a warm and humid Michigan summer day and one never knows how tummies will take to flying.
I had done our run-up (engine check) and everything looked great. The airplane seemed to be in perfect working order. I looked to me cousins, asked them if they were ready and I could see the gleam in their eyes. I announced our departure to the Troy/Oakland traffic and through the throttle forward. We were in a low wing Beech Sport and she build up speed down the runway as she normally did.
When we got up into the air, just above the ground condition, I started to notice a potential problem. The tachometer needle (reads engine speed) was flying all over the place. Then it started to settle below the “green arc.” For any pilots out there, they know that’s not a good thing. Basically the engine wasn’t getting enough power.
The other issue I had to deal with was the fact we were heading towards some high tension power lines and were not climbing above a couple of hundred feet. I frantically went through all of the checks in my mind to see what could be wrong… throttle (full forward), mixture (in), fuel (tanks were full and fuel switch was engaged)… by the time my fingers stopped flying around the controls, the power lines were even closer.
That’s when I knew we were REALLY in trouble. I like over to my cousin setting next to me but didn’t have the words to describe what was happening. She gave me a quizzical look. My younger cousin in the back seat was cracking jokes and imitating Beavis and Butthead. ‘How ironic,’ I thought.
I yanked on the controls and turned the airplane sharply to the left to avoid the power lines. The airplane barely had enough power and essentially stalled its way down toward the ground. The ground was actually a set of railroad tracks at the end of the airport. I had been trained for this just in case something like this happened (thank God!). But it was still quite an experience to be fighting the controls on what felt like fighting through mushy cereal.
Once we were lined up along the tracks and sinking at a scary rate, I had time to look over at my cousin one last time. I could see she understood. Her eyes wide and confused. My cousin in the back still had no clue as he continued to entertain himself with Beavis and Butthead voices.
I clearly recall my last words before impact, “Oh shit. Oh shit.” Yep, oh shit was right.
We hit the ground and skidded along the rocks strewn along the railroad tracks. I remember the firewall opening up and hot, humid air pouring into the cockpit as dust and small rocks were kicked up. I barely noticed the gear shearing off and dancing their way into the tall weeds. Luckily we skidded straight and then did a 180 degree turn on the ground to our final resting place.
My cousin in the back had stopped with the Beavis and Butthead and was crying. He also had a small gash on his forehead. We scrambled out of the plane for fear something might be on fire. A quick assessment revealed the plane was not on fire and then I looked at my cousin’s gash again. I almost vomited. I was suddenly struck with the thought, ‘I almost killed my two younger cousins.’
Brushing that aside, I threw my shirt off and placed it on my cousin's forehead. I looked to me other cousin and she was shaking and I could tell shock had settled in.
We were lucky in that we had also crashed next to an industrial park. A bunch guys were taking a break at the machine shop, heard the plane and saw it crash. They were up in seconds with a fire extinguisher and helping us down from the tracks.
The rest of the day and night was a blur. I remember we were all sent to the hospital in different ambulances. I had to take an alcohol blood test since I was the pilot. I only really remember laying on a wood board for hours and how painful it was. Eventually we were all released with minor bumps, bruises and cuts.
The police brought me back to the crash scene where I had the pleasure of being yelled at by some executive from the railroad company. He was incensed that some “kid” had crashed a plane and then shut his line down, hurting his business.
All I could think was, ‘Sure. Like I really wanted to crash a plane today and almost kill my cousins and myself.’
Running from God
I think it was in that moment that I truly felt alone. I especially felt like God was no longer with me. I didn’t see the gift in how I was alive. I didn’t realize (even when I saw it later) that there was no way I avoided the smaller power lines on our descent without the help of “someone” or “some thing”.
I would like to say I wised up pretty quickly after the accident. But, alas, I did not. I had to get over anxiety around the crash and my fear of coming pretty close to death. I had nightmares for weeks and I didn’t want to drive with other people in the care for fear of maybe killing them.
I was definitely angry with God. I was so blinded by anger that I just didn’t see any other alternative. I look back on it now and laugh at my younger self. So blind and so convinced that this experience was meant to harm vs. help me.
The positive that did come out of that experience in the summer of 1993, was that it made me realize how much of my life I had lived for others. I was always playing the role of the good Catholic boy in front of adults, my parents and superiors. But then with my friends I would act rebellious and show my anger. I had no idea how to be authentic and live life for myself.
But the crash changed all of that. I got back into music. Started a band. Finally found a girlfriend and started to enjoy life. All the way I had this boiling anger about God and religion boiling in my belly. But I thought nothing of it. In fact I even convinced myself that I was being cool, especially if I told people I was an atheist.
Once I graduated from college, I decided to continue on to grad school which eventually landed me a job with Boeing out in Seattle. I was so happy. I loved all of the Seattle music in the 90’s while I was in college. Working for a huge company like Boeing was a dream job.
I really loved working for a large company at first. But then the negativity of my coworkers and my own inner self came boiling up. It seemed not matter what I did or who I hung around with, I was just an unhappy person. Always looking to the outside for my problems, I thought it was because of where I lived and what I was doing.
So I finished my second graduate degree and got a different job with Boeing working in Product Development and then moved into downtown Seattle so I could finally be “cool” again.
Yep, you guessed it. None of that worked. It finally took until my late twenties to start to wake up. I clearly remember the day it happened like it was last week. I came home from work. Popped open a beer, flipped on the television and just started to zone out.
I can’t explain why this episode of zoning out was different than any other in my life. I was mindlessly flipping through channels and nothing grabbed my attention. The Bruce Springsteen song “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)” was echoing in my mind. And then, there it was… running behind that thought were other thoughts.
I started to notice a tape loop playing. It was saying things like ‘You’re no good. Nobody likes you. Who would date you? You’re a failure at work, etc…’ I was literally floored. As in I sank down to the floor in shock. I couldn’t believe what I was experiencing.
Suddenly the beer in my hand felt all wrong and the television was hurting my head. I shut the television off and ran over to the sink. I dumped the rest of my beer out and just stood in the silence. I walked back over to my chair and sat back down again. The voices were still there. Running their nasty little loop.
I decided then and there that I didn’t want to experience this anymore. I didn’t want to be so negative. That decision changed my life.
Within weeks an ex-girlfriend introduced me to a life coach. My life coaching sessions opened me up in ways I never knew was possible. I started taking life coaching classes myself. I met a girl who was very spiritual and we started dating. This experience opened me up even more. I soaked in every spiritual book I could get my hands on. I had started meditating every day. I wanted to learn about energy healing, Buddhism, Hinduism, psychics and more.
But what I didn’t want to touch was anything that talked about God. ‘He/She’ was still off limits in my mind. I avoided any book with God in the title or that might discuss God at all. But what I didn’t know was that because I was skirting on the edge of “God stuff” it had created a little opening in my mind.
Back Into the Arms of Love
I was on to my third different life coach in a few years when this exact conversation happened. I remember being asked a really powerful question in our session, “What if you let God back into your heart and your life?”
The question, frankly, pissed me off at first. But a different part of me was intrigued and excited. It felt like a homework assignment, that if I took on, would totally change my life.
It took several days to work up the nerve to think about his question again. Without even knowing what I was doing I had walked into my bathroom and was staring at myself in the mirror (which was something I never did, I hated looking at myself in the mirror). I took a deep breath and just let whatever was inside of me come up and out. As I looked at myself I had a conversation with God. I actually don’t remember what I said except for one pivotal moment. I said I was sorry and asked to have God back in my heart and in my life.
Staring at myself and saying those words, I broke down and cried harder than I had since I was a kid. I was trembling and couldn’t see anymore. My heart felt so open and happy. I felt a huge weight release from my shoulders. I felt years of anger starting to dissolve in my tears.
Even though the plane crash did help change my life, this moment had the biggest impact and it is the one I am most grateful for today.
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