This story is part of a two-part series. You can read Part One here.
May 5th, 1981 (continued)
My entire being is suddenly filled with the strangest sensation. I’d always thought that a moment like this would be filled with terror and fear. Yet, in truth, the emotion that overwhelms me in this final moment isn’t horror … it’s pure, raw disappointment!
“I’m going to die! Oh no. So, this is how it ends? Like this?”
“Yes. Exactly like this.”
I suppose I’ll be killed on impact. I guess it’ll be quick—after all, the engine’s right behind my head …
But still, what a shame. What a terrible shame.
There was so much more I wanted to do.
I was going to be a screenwriter. I was going to write TV shows and movies…
But now there will be no more dreams …
No more anything …
Because my life ends here.
My life ends now.
And in that terrible moment, I accepted my death.
But as I did, I felt an incredible lightness travel through my body, then watched in confusion as I began to rise up through the bottom wing.
“Now, what the hell is this? Some kind of weird, pre-death, out-of-body experience?”
It took my confused brain several nanoseconds to realize it wasn’t the end of my life I was experiencing, it was zero G. Or more accurately, negative G.
For some reason, my body was being pulled up into the top wing and as I tried to make sense of what was happening, I let go of the hang tubes and threw my hands out to protect myself.
I had forgotten the prop was only inches behind my head.
I felt the wood smash into my left hand an instant before a sudden, violent G-load drove my head into the top wing, splitting my crash helmet in two.
“DAMN,” I thought. “Cut off my hand!”
And as that thought sank in—amazingly—I heard my inner voice laugh—LAUGH!—and say:
“So what? You’ll be dead in another few seconds.”
“Good point,” I heard myself chuckle in response.
I’m laughing NOW?
WHAT SORT OF RAVING LUNATIC AM I?
DON’T I REALIZE THIS IS THE FINAL MOMENT OF MY LIFE?
“Well yes,” says the voice inside. “But you have to admit, that was pretty funny.”
And as I lie there trying to understand how I could possibly find the amputation of my hand humorous—it suddenly dawns on me that I am indeed—lying there!
Lying there …
I try to take in what I’m seeing and finally realize I am lying on my head, inside the top wing. Only the top wing doesn’t appear to be the top wing anymore. Somehow, it has become the bottom wing.
Suddenly—amazingly—I understand what has happened.
Instead of pulling out of the dive right side up, the Easy has recovered upside down …
All by itself !
As far as I can tell, I am now flying inverted!
But as I was still a hundred feet up when all of this began, I imagine the Easy will now stall again and kill me in the second dive.
From my crumpled position I can’t see the ground, so it’s impossible to gauge how much longer I have to live.
“Oh, this is even worse than before. At least, in the dive, I could SEE the ground coming. Now I won’t know when it’s about to happen.”
“God, I hate this.
COME ON THEN.
QUIT TORTURING ME.
IF I’M GOING TO DIE, LET’S GET THIS OVER WITH.
COME ON …”
… bump …
Suddenly … everything goes quiet.
Very … very … quiet.
I tilt my head sideways and find myself looking at … dirt.
Well this can’t be right.
I appear to be … on the ground!
I take a closer look at the dirt.
Yup, that’s the ground all right.
I suddenly realize what has happened.
I’ve obviously crashed so, it IS over.
So, that’s it then!
This is what it’s like to die.
Well this isn’t so bad.
I patiently lie there, crumpled up in the wing, and wait for things to fade to black …
Or for that white light they’re always talking about.
I imagine one of those should be happening any moment now …
… sizzle …
Hmm … what’s that sound?
… sizzle …
And what’s that smell?
I turn my head and see gas running from the inverted tank into a pool under the hot engine.
THIS THING’S GONNA BURN!
GET OUTTA HERE.
I search for the harness quick-release and am confused to find it beneath me.
“Oh, right. Of course. I’m upside down. Silly me.”
“WILL YOU GET OUT OF HERE?” screams the voice inside.
“What? Oh. Right. Sorry.”
I get the right-hand release unfastened, but have trouble undoing the left. Can’t seem to get my damn hand to work.
Sizzle. Sizzle. Sizzle.
“YES. ALL RIGHT. I HEAR YOU.”
The sound of the burning gas motivates me to move faster—and a second later I finally feel the second release let go.
“Okay. That’s it. Get out of here. It’s gonna’ go up any moment now.”
“Absolutely. I’m gone.”
I stumble out of the wreckage, stagger to my feet then walk as fast as I can towards the nearby road. Best to get as far away as possible before the thing blows up—which should take place any moment now … any mo—
And in that moment, I realize … something is terribly wrong.
I stop in my tracks, turn around, and look back at the wreckage of my wings.
By now, it’s obvious that the Easy isn’t going to burn—and although they’re damaged, the wings are in remarkably good shape.
I stare at them in confusion … and suddenly realize what is troubling me.
Wait a minute …
Aren’t I supposed to be dead?
I look up at the sky I just fell from, searching for anything that might explain what has happened.
Then I look back down at the broken wings.
How can I POSSIBLY have survived this?
I just fell the height of a sixty-storey building … and I’m alive?
“I’M ALIVE? ARE YOU TELLING ME I GOT AWAY WITH IT?”
I throw my hands up in utter delight—and as I do, I’m suddenly aware of something on the end of my left arm that feels … well … sort of … loose.
“Oh, yeah. Cut my hand off, didn’t I?”
As the memory of the prop strike returns, I brace myself for the worst, then pull my left arm slowly up in front of my face so I can see exactly what damage I’ve done.
I try to avoid looking until I absolutely have to …
But when I force myself to examine what I expect will be a bloody stump, I am surprised to see that my left hand is still attached.
You mean I got away with that too? WOW! That’s amazing. That’s Incredible. That’s—
Oh, wait. No, I didn’t.
I suddenly realize the fingers on my left hand don’t look right at all.
Three of the fingertips have obviously been broken and—oh dear, now what’s this?
I look closely at my left index finger and realize the tip has been cut off. It’s still hanging there—but it’s definitely been cut off.
“Ah, ha! So that’s what felt ‘loose’,” I think, happy to have solved at least one mystery.
That was my fingertip I felt flapping about.
I look curiously at the severed fingertip
“Isn’t that strange,” I think. “Doesn’t hurt at all.”
I shrug, then put the fingertip back where it’s supposed to be.
I suppose I should be upset about this—but all things considered, the loss of one fingertip is pretty cheap when just a few minutes ago I thought I was going to be …
My thoughts trail off as the question hits me again.
“Aren’t I supposed to be dead?”
This time, when the answer arrives, it comes softly …
I survived this.
My life will go on.
This isn’t the day I die.
As I stand there trying to let that thought sink in, a car screams to a stop and a man jumps out holding a shovel.
Stan Riome runs towards the wreckage—and actually gets several feet past me before he checks, turns, stares at me in confusion then says, “I saw the crash and … um … who are you?”
“… I’m the pilot,” I answer.
Stan looks at the broken wreckage for a long moment, then turns back to me and, with utter disbelief in his voice, says, “You walked away from that?”
I have to think about this for a long moment, before I realize it’s finally safe to answer.
I look at my broken wings one last time, then turn to Stan and say:
“Yes … yes I did.”
May 7th, 1981
Two days after the crash I taxied my friend Jan Kleppe’s Cessna 150 to the centreline of Guelph Air Park’s runway 32, pushed in the throttle, then eased myself back into the air with my splinted left hand.
I looked thoughtfully at my injuries as I climbed back into my beloved sky.
While Stan Riome drove me to the hospital, a hysterical neighbour had called Michelle to say I’d crashed. When she was told I’d cut off my finger, Michelle calmly replied, “Does he have the finger with him, or should I come and look for it?”
I held the tip where it should be all the way to the hospital but, in truth, I was more concerned about the swelling over my left temple. I’d landed on my head when the Easy went inverted, and while my fiberglass-shell U.S. Air Force crash helmet took the brunt of the impact, I still had a pretty impressive “goose egg” over my left temple.
I was waiting to get my head examined (quite appropriate, considering what I’d just done), when Michelle arrived. I knew she was coming because I heard a nurse say, “Miss, you can’t go in there,” then, “The hell I can’t,” followed by a loud CRASH as Michelle slammed through the Emergency Room doorway.
From the second I heard her voice, I was overwhelmed by what can only be described as pure joy at the thought of seeing her.
Less than an hour ago, I had thought I would never see Widgie again. And yet here she was—angrily scanning the ward for me, then storming to my side.
“Oh, oh,” I thought. “Now I’m in for it.”
And while I knew I should be worried, I was just so damn happy to see her.
“Let me see your hand,” was all Widge said.
I sheepishly pulled back the blanket, (which I’d hastily rearranged to cover my severed digit). Michelle looked at the bloody mess, nodded, then looked at the impressive bump on my head.
The doctor picked that moment to return, so Michelle turned to him and said, “Well—is he going to live?” Doctor Haylock, the man who has now been my GP for twenty-nine years, grinned, held up the x-ray of my head, and said “Oh, he’ll be around to give you trouble for quite a while yet.”
Once Haylock convinced Michelle (and me) that I wasn’t going to drop dead in the next few minutes, she let him take me off to see what could be done with my hand. Then she stormed back into the waiting room where—although she’d quit smoking more than a year before—Widge demanded a cigarette from the nearest shocked visitor. (I still feel bad about that, although she quit permanently 3 years later.)
Haylock examined my hand, splinted the two broken fingers, then decided to try sewing the severed bit back on. “It’s a long shot,” he said. “You kept the blood flowing by holding the tip in place, but you definitely won’t have a fingernail.”
The good doctor was better than he knew. The fingertip graft took, and about a year later, a brand new fingernail grew in!
I glanced up from my broken hand and looked out the windshield of Jan’s 150. I’d climbed up to three thousand feet and seemed to be flying okay. As far as I could tell, there weren’t any after-effects from the crash (that would come later) … but one thought was beginning to haunt me.
“What do I do now?”
It was a simple question, but it deeply troubled me.
I wanted to learn to fly.
I had done that.
I wanted to be a Barnstormer.
I’d done that too.
I’d run Air Races, flown antique biplanes coast to coast —twice—been an Air Show pilot, jumped off cliffs with a hang glider, built my own airplane and, most important of all … I had flown like a bird.
The Easy Riser had damn near killed me, but before that happened, I had experienced my childhood dream. I had run along the ground on my own two feet, lifted into the air on wings built with my own hands, flown around the vast, deep blue as free as any bird, then stepped lightly down from the sky as I returned to Earth.
Every dream I dreamed, I’d turned into reality …
But what do I do now?
The question troubled me deeply.
Was it over?
Would anything ever mean as much as the extraordinary adventures I had just—barely—survived.
Or, at the age of 32, was it all downhill from here?
As I banked the little Cessna around the sky, there were no instant answers—though a few facts were blazingly clear.
First and foremost—I should be dead.
No doubt about it, I should NOT have survived the Easy Riser crash … and yet, here I was—alive.
Once again, I was living on stolen time. But as this was time I really had no right to, I could afford to start taking chances.
Not the foolish kind I’d taken in the past. I could now take chances by going after “The Big Dreams,” the ones I’d been avoiding—through fear of failure, I guessed.
“I was going to be a Screenwriter,” that’s what I’d thought on the way down; that’s what I’d thought when I knew I would die in the next few seconds.
And as I remembered the sense which had overwhelmed me in “the last few seconds of my life”—not fear, but disappointment—I resolved that I would not feel that way again when my final moment really did come.
I also remembered the utter joy I felt when I saw Widgie storm protectively into the Emergency Room.
It was only after I saw Michelle that I truly felt alive again.
And yet, I had come so close to losing her. Not just by dying, but by living far too much inside myself.
Somehow, I had to learn how to be closer to her. I wanted to become Michelle’s real partner, walking side-by-side. No—not walking—flying side by side.
Yes, that felt right.
We were already best friends and lovers, but I sensed we could be so much more.
And I had the sudden clear knowledge that if we could learn how to fly as equals, we could take our love to a completely different level —discover a whole new world of adventures, which would make those early ones pale.
That felt right too.
I waited for the next revelation.
There was none.
“Um … so, that’s it then?” I thought. “Become a screenwriter, and fly next to Michelle?”
The voice inside pondered that question for a beat, then responded with a definite:
“Yup. That’s it.”
“I nearly had to die to discover I’m supposed to become a screenwriter and fly next to Michelle?”
“You got it.”
“Sounds pretty simple,” I thought.
“It isn’t,” said the voice. “These new dreams will be the hardest, and most satisfying, of your life … IF you can pull them off.”
“Really?” I answered, with mounting interest. “Sounds like an interesting challenge.”
“Hmmm. Well, in that case … I think I’ll go for it.”
“Good,” said the inner voice, before adding:
“So what are you doing up here?”
I thought about that, grinned, took one last look at the towering white clouds painted on that gorgeous, May-blue morning, then pushed the nose down, and headed back to the ground, Michelle, and the rest of our lives.
The Voice Inside knew what it/he/I was saying. I did become a screenwriter, and flying alongside Michelle has become my greatest pleasure in life.
The 29 years since the Easy Riser crash have made my earlier adventures pale in comparison.
But those stories are Michelle’s, as much as mine …
So we’ll have to tell them together …
But before we do that, let me tell you how this all began.
You see, for as long as I can remember, I had this recurring dream …
To be continued in Episode 3 of “Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.”
About the Author
Glenn Norman is a Co-Founder and the Editor of Why Fly. Learn more.