This is some writing+storytelling practice—changing it up from fiction, this is a true story about being the first on the scene of a plane crash.
“Gear down and welded.” I grinned, pleased with myself for finishing my husband’s pre-landing check list.
Jason smiled back at me. “You got it, babe. I’m close enough to the runway now, so I’m raising the flaps.”
“Right, got it.” My fingertips rested lightly on the yoke in the co-pilot’s seat, following along and learning my husband’s movements—he’s an experienced commercial-rated pilot.
It was a perfect day for a flight in the single-engine airplane we share with another family. Mid-October, warmer than usual. Stunning views at 3,000 feet, the color popping in the trees was especially vibrant over Shenandoah. A calm winds day with almost no turbulence, which meant I got plenty of practice time as “pilot in command.” But as we turned towards our home runway with two planes ahead of us and one plane behind, my husband had control of the aircraft.
The air traffic controller told us the plane ahead of us was clear of the runway and we started our final descent.
I always get a little nervous on landings—and I say a quick prayer during every takeoff. It’s a secret habit. But this was our third landing of the day and the nerves were barely there. Just a buzzing excitement—the takeoffs and landings are the best part! And my husband was confident as ever in the airplane. It’s really quite sexy, I thought, sneaking a peek at him as he touched the plane down expertly.
“And we make the first turn-off again!” He always makes the first turn-off. This mean he had a precise landing. He announced our movements to air traffic control and we started our taxi back the opposite direction to our hangar.
“Great flight, babe.” I reached over to squeeze his thigh.
“It was, wasn’t it? Perfect day. Thank you, co-pilot.”
I pulled out my phone and turned off airplane mode as we taxied along. Nearly back at our hangar, I spotted the fourth plane in our line-up just reaching the runway.
“Look at that guy,” I said. “Super slow.”
Jason glanced. “Eh, yeah. But that’s normal for a Cessna.”
The plane continued out of my line of sight and I just shrugged. Jason is the expert. I clicked on an email alert, always obsessed with what would pop into my inbox. Jason shut off the engine and without the booming noise of our engine, we pulled off our headsets simultaneously.
That’s when we heard the sound.
Have you ever heard a sound that’s not in your usual vocabulary of sounds? Your brain can’t process it right away because it’s just… foreign? That’s what this was. A whomp-crush sound. High notes and low notes. I had literally no idea what I was hearing.
With the plane positioned away from the noise—and with no rear view mirrors on the plane—my husband saw the source of the sound first.
“Oh no,” he said.
Have I ever seen this expression on my husband’s face before? Ever heard this tone in his voice? Maybe to some degree when there’s a close call in the car—someone suddenly cutting us off. Or maybe in that split second when a wine glass tumbles through the air to the floor. That something is bad, wrong. Not right. But this was a totally new level of not right. My brain didn’t have a chance to process it, but just seeing my husband’s face I knew in my gut: something bad is happening.
I stood in my seat and turned.
That’s a plane, my mind processed. And it’s upside down.
“Oh my god.” I looked at the phone in my hand. Jason already had the chocks in his hands, securing our plane in seconds. “I’m calling 9-1-1,” I said.
“Good, yeah. Shit. I’m running ahead.”
“Right behind you.” I punched the numbers on my phone. 9-1-1. Is it that simple? Does 9-1-1 even wo—?
“9-1-1, what is your emergency?”
“Hi, I’m at Leesburg Executive Airport and there’s a plane crash. A plane is upside down on the taxiway.”
“I’m sending a team out right away. Okay… Is it clear of the runway?”
“Yes.” I adjusted my grip on the phone as I jogged toward the crash. I shared the most important information first: no passenger movement, but no fire. I told him I didn’t see the crash, didn’t know how the plane got upside in this location. I engaged with him as best as I could, while running. 100 yards? I haven’t been in a position to run a football field lately, so I’m not sure. I answered all the operator’s questions while thinking, there’s still no movement. That can’t be good. But there’s no fire, yet. That’s very, very good. No movement, no fire, no movement…
My husband got to the plane and my stomach lurched. Please be no fire. Please don’t be a horrifying sight.
“Someone’s getting out of the plane. My husband is at the plane now and he’s helping someone out. They are standing.” I continued relaying information to the operator as four people emerged from the plane. Sometime during the exit, I arrived and waved the shaken victims over to the grass, away from the plane.
“There are some injuries. One woman looks dizzy. Two men have blood on them.”
“A lot of blood?” the operator asked.
“Um, I don’t know. Face is bloody, looks like a lot of blood. But not gushing.”
Jason worked efficiently to get all passengers away from the plane. Another man showed up at some point to help, but there were only three of us responding. I was just glad my husband and all the passengers were finally positioned far from the broken plane.
The operator gave me instructions what to do with the victims. Don’t move them if they’re pinned—no one was pinned, thank god. Don’t let them fall asleep, don’t let them eat or drink, and so on. He took my name and number, assured me help would be there soon, and ended the call.
“Mam,” I said to the woman who had just laid back in the grass and closed her eyes. “The 9-1-1 operator said it’s very important that you stay awake. Can you sit up?”
She didn’t answer me, but she complied. They were all in shock. Three of them sitting, the one man wandering around looking like he’d fall over. He didn’t sit when his companions asked him to.
Jason came over and squeezed my hand. We silently asked and answered you okay?We’re okay, but we’re shaken.
Then we heard the sirens. Relief. Jason put his arm around me and I leaned into him. A hero, I thought. My husband is a hero.
A lot of emergency vehicles show up in response to a plane crash call. Four fire trucks, three ambulances, and so many police cars. We even left before NTSB showed up. But we stayed for a long while, answering questions and waiting.
I learned that the first thing my husband did when he got to the plane was to ask the passengers six or seven times to flip the ignition. The power was still on in the plane, which, in an upside plane, could have easily ignited a spark. And then there was the upside fuel tank…
It could have been very bad. When I asked Jason what the passengers were doing when he arrived he said, “Just sitting there. There were sitting on the ceiling of the plane, totally dazed.”
We learned the plane started pitching back and forth—must have been right after I saw it—and that somehow the plane caught an updraft and flipped a wing up. Somersaulted through the air and landed upside down. There will be a full investigation to learn what exactly happened, but we won’t know for a while.
Three of the passengers were treated for their injuries on sight. The woman who kept laying down was taken to the hospital. But everyone was okay.
Thank god, everyone was okay.
Days later, I think about what I take away from this experience. First, my husband and I responded swiftly and with clear heads when faced with an emergency. That’s comforting! That’s not something I would’ve liked to test out, but it’s good to know this about us. I hope we can be cool and clear if we ever face emergencies in the future.
I learned that I want to take a first aid course. I didn’t need it this time, but I’d like to be better prepared moving forward.
It hasn’t crossed my mind once to hesitate next time we go to get in the plane. We will continue to be diligent about the conditions we fly in, doing our checklists before, during and after the flights, and we’ll continue to stay current with all of our training. I will always say my little prayer for good measure. But we will continue to enjoy our aviation hobby.
Finally, 9-1-1 works. At least in this one situation where it impacted me. And I am very grateful for the support of our emergency responders.