Doug, a close friend, and a student of mine, bought a used Citabria, a small two seat, high wing aircraft. His insurance company required two hours of instruction before carrying passengers.
We flew for about an hour and a half, and stopped for lunch. After lunch we planned to spend another half hour practicing landings. It was an exceptionally beautiful day for flying. The sky was clear and the air was smooth as glass. Except for a few hawks circling in a thermal, we had the flight pattern to ourselves.
I had never seen Doug so happy. He just kept grinning and grinning. I couldn’t help from getting high on his high. I commented to him that we were just like a couple of teenage boys with a new toy.
On final approach the thought crossed my mind: “Doug is doing just fine.” “Maybe we should make this the last landing.” Then for no special reason at all – – – (it was just one of those small decisions you make every day without thinking twice about it). I said to myself: “Naw; we’re having a good time, let’s go around one more time.”
Doug made another perfect touch-and-go landing, it was a joy seeing him starting to own his new plane. Then he flew around the pattern and lined up on final approach. I said: “Let’s make this one a full stop, O.K.!” “Sure, whatever you say.”
We were only about thirty yards from the end of the runway, and fifty feet high, when suddenly our aircraft lurched forward. Something had hit us from the rear! My mind raced through the possibilities. It had to be another airplane, and it had to be going faster.
My first thought was, it was a larger aircraft, and it was going to tear its way right through us— “Instant death for sure!”
However, it didn’t seem to happen instantly at all, I’m not sure if I could hear it or feel it, but I could sense that it was slowly but surely chewing its way up the fuselage towards me. I guessed it must me a smaller aircraft, but I was still sure it was going to chew us up and spit us out.
Then the chewing stopped, and for some mysterious reason we were still gliding in level flight. Suddenly something let loose, and we went into a vertical dive. All I could see in the front windshield was asphalt.
My professional opinion? Sudden death!
A quick prayer crossed my mind asking God to take care of wife. I thought, just maybe, there was a slim chance of survival. So I crossed my arms in front of my face and grabbed my elbows, – – – – we slammed into the runway!
There was a deafening noise and all of the windows blew out. The airplane slumped over to one side, and then – – – silence. Doug’s head was buried in the dash, it looked like he was dead. Gasoline was running off of the wings, and down through the engine compartment. I could hear it sizzling as it hit the hot exhaust. I mentally reached for my seat belt, but my arms refused to move.
Extreme fear gripped me now, and shook my entire body. “Dying, well that was one thing, but being cooked alive—-?!”
I looked out and saw two men standing just outside the growing lake of gasoline. I yelled: “GET ME OUT OF HERE!”–“RIGHT NOW!!”
They waded bravely through the gasoline and tore open the door. They tried to lift me, but were having difficulty. One of them asked if I could push with my legs. I pushed, and they lifted me out and walked me over to a pickup truck and sat me on the tail gate. Then they went back to get Doug.
The Ramona firemen arrived. They put Doug on a stretcher. He was alive, but unconscious, and his head was bleeding badly. They called the Life-flight helicopter. I saw Doug’s girl friend Terry. She had watched the whole thing, and badly shaken. I gave her my wife’s work number and asked her to please call, and say: “Vance is O.K., but he’s been in an airplane accident.”
Life-flight arrived and flew us to Scripts Hospital. By the time we arrived things were starting to get blurry. In the emergency room a doctor cut a slit in my stomach and inserted a tube. I was bleeding internally. They ran down the hall with my gurney to the surgery room. As I began to lose consciousness my last thought was: “They’re running, it’s going to be a close one.”
Two years later we went to court. The accident, which seemed like five or ten seconds of total chaos, was blown up into thirty eight-hour days, and gone over in minute detail; with huge color photographs, computer generated videos, and hours and hours of testimony from eye witnesses and accident investigation experts.
After the court experience, I had a completely different perception of the word accident. With the facts laid out before me in all of this great detail, I decided that what I had perceived as total chaos was really more like a cross between a beautifully orchestrated ballet, and micro-surgery. Something like one of those ultra slow motion movies of a drop of milk hitting in a cup and bouncing up into a beautiful flower pattern.
While we were gliding in for our final landing, God was already moving in the witnesses for the upcoming law suit. A student pilot about to return to his home base on a solo cross-country flight taxied his airplane out to the engine run-up area. This gave him a ring side seat for the accident. And a lady pilot
in a Cessna 150 was just entering the downwind leg on her Private check-ride. She watched the Pitts biplane pass by her lower and inside; make a swooping left turn hit our airplane and chew off the tail section. (The tail section that would later be taken into the court room as evidence).
After studying the details, I call it a “Multiple stage miracle.”
First of all the Pitts stopped chewing two and a half feet behind me.
Secondly, his propeller surgically removed our battery, disconnecting the electrical system and preventing a fire.
His aircraft locked up with ours somehow, momentarily replacing the tail section it had cut off, and allowing us to remain in level flight down to about thirty-five feet.
All aircraft do not necessarily have shoulder harnesses, this one did, and we had them on.
The engine broke off, and the left wing crumpled, absorbing much of the impact.
Locking my arms in front of my face shattered my shoulders, but saved my face and neck, and probably my life.
The two guys were right there in time, and brave enough to pull us out.
One wing broke on the Pitts, causing it to roll over and land inverted. The top wing took most of the impact, and the pilot walked away without a scratch.
The biplane slid to a stop just a few feet short of hitting our aircraft a second time.
Instead of taking us in the ambulance they called the Life-flight helicopter. I would have bled to death internally before arriving at the hospital in an ambulance.
Doug had to have five pins put into his right ankle, and twenty-seven stitches in his forehead, but he was
Able to visit me on crutches a week after the accident.
During my first shoulder operation, I aspirated, which came closer to killing me than the airplane accident. They aborted the operation, and I ended up spending 44 days in I.C.U.
I was in the back seat of the orange and white aircraft,- – – note the tail section of our airplane to the right of the photograph, that was cut off in mid-air. Also note the red battery just ahead of the fireman; it was surgically removed by his propeller, thereby preventing a fire. The red bi-plane landed upside down and is lying just behind our aircraft.