Disclaimer: This is the kind of post I would've preferred to plan in advance and give much thought to, but today's date has caught me by surprise. Hopefully what follows below will do the subject matter justice.
Fifteen years ago this morning, I walked away from a plane crash without a single bruise or scratch on my body. While that event hasn't been without its costly ripple effects (I now mask a significant fear of flying, especially at landings, that I didn't have prior to June 18, 2002), it's been a valuable, ongoing catalyst for personal reflection. Reflection requires knowledge of the details, however, so I'll begin by establishing some context and relaying the events of that morning as they unfolded.
In May of 2002, I started dating my wife. I had basically been in love with her for two years already, but on May 23rd, she finally succumbed to the inevitable. Though we were physically together that day, it was just a couple of weeks into summer break, and I had to return to my home in Dallas shortly thereafter. But having waiting so long for this relationship to materialize, I wasn't about to just sit at home all summer. Instead, I called the career placement office at my college in Dayton, TN--100 miles from where my wife lived in Knoxville--and inquired about local job opportunities. I was told of a guy who was renting a warehouse in nearby Sale Creek, population 2,700, who needed a hand doing grunt work...on his airplane kits. "Airplane kits?" I asked the woman on the phone. "Yeah I don't know much about it, but you might call Matt Palmer, a fellow student of yours, who is working there already."
Matt was the older brother of a girl in my class at school. We didn't know each other very well but we were loosely acquainted. I called him up and learned that his boss was a veteran Vietnam pilot who was building small, DIY, commuter aircraft kits and selling them to wealthy hobbyists who would eventually assemble and pilot them. It sounded strange, but I was down for just about anything if it would get me 900 miles closer to my wife-to-be.
I called my would-be employer, Stan Montgomery, the morning after speaking with Matt. He wasn't thrilled at getting an inquiry from someone all the way in Texas, but he told me if I could make it to his warehouse in 48 hours, the job was mine. My mom helped me throw all my junk into my 1997 Ford Contour, and I was burning rubber to Tennessee the following morning.
A few hours into my trip, it occurred to me I had no place to actually live. I called a guy I was marginally friends with, told him what I was doing, and begged him to let me split his rent at this dumpy house he was living in at the time. I think he was either drunk or high when I called him, or maybe he just liked finding out his rent would be cut in half. In any case, "Suuuure, maaaan," he told me. "Come on oooover." My plans were falling into place.
My first morning on the job, Matt was late to work. When he finally arrived, he was all smiles. "Stan just took me up in his prototype!" he told me. After explaining what can only be described as a thrill ride, I knew I had to experience it, too. Sure enough, Stan was eager to give me that experience, and we set a date for the following Saturday, June 18.
I arrived at the diminutive Mark Anton Municipal Airport just before sunrise, per Stan's request. I found his hanger, and he was already set to go. We rolled the aircraft backward out of the hanger and positioned it facing the runway. We then climbed into the cramped, uncomfortable tandem seats of his prototype--the SQ 2000 (pictured below)--and buckled in. We put on our communicating headsets, he started up the engine, and we taxied to the runway.
Liftoff was nothing like the feeling of a commercial jet. If you've ever been in a very small aircraft, you know what I mean. It felt effortless and almost inconsequential, like we were on a small theme park ride. As we climbed, Stan asked me to look under the right wing on my side and tell him if the landing gear was up or down. "It's down," I said. All of the color left Stan's face.
About 20 seconds of silenced elapsed before Stan finally said, "Josh, do you know Jesus?" You have probably never been asked so stunning and unexpected a question in your life. Nonetheless, for a fleeting moment I was detached from any fear. Stan is a Mormon, and I knew little enough about Mormon belief that I briefly forgot something terrible was happening and became preoccupied with theological musings. But the fear came rushing back soon enough, and I mustered an unconvincing, "Yes?" Stan didn't mince words. "Well good, that way no matter what happens we'll both be ok."
"What's going on, Stan?" I earnestly asked him. "Hold on a second," he said. He then got his business partners--fellow pilots who'd just landed at the airport in the few minutes since we had taken off--on our frequency, and the three of them commenced a lengthy discussion purely in avionics jargon that I could not follow. Finally, Stan told them, "I have one of my workers with me." The other end of the frequency fell silent. "We'll be on the ground for you, Stan, everything's gonna be ok," finally came the reply, and the conversation ended.
"What's going on, Stan?" I asked again. He proceeded to explain how the right landing gear was essentially broken. He said it had to have broken the second we lifted off of the ground. Our danger was that it had somehow lost a piece that is designed to keep it in place under the weight of the plane at the moment of touching down. Now, the landing gear was just going to fold up under the wing under the slightest pressure. Basically, we had no landing gear.
"We'll have to burn fuel for a while before attempting to land, to reduce the chances of fire. Also, pray we don't go into a spin." he said. "Great," I thought. "If we're lucky enough not to break into a thousand pieces before coming to a stop, we may still explode." Not to mention, I'd essentially just been told not only that I was about to die, but also that I had several minutes of flying around to just think about it.
I was rendered incapable of coherent thought. While I hurt for my parents and siblings in that moment, I also had an implicit knowledge that this relationship I'd just kindled in Knoxville was the Big One. Hence I spent a fair amount of time in the air that morning brooding over the apparent meaninglessness of a relationship I had, 'til that moment, believed to my core was to be the most meaningful of my life.
But ultimately I couldn't be consumed with thoughts of despair. I started to pray the only words I could manage in that cockpit while confronting my imminent death: "God help us." Over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over again I muttered those words in my mind. Feebly, frantically, pathetically. Stan interrupted my prayers. "Alright it's time to do this. I'm going to cut the engine when we have a straight line to the runway, we're going to coast in without power, then I'm going to try to keep the plane balanced on one wheel until I can teeter us over to the grass parallel to the runway. Then I'm going to set the right wing down," he explained. Then he reiterated in a more dire tone, "Pray we don't go into a spin."
I'll never forget the transporting eeriness that came over me when he cut the engines. Unless you've been hang gliding before, you've never been coasting through the air without the loud buzz of an engine about your ears. All you could hear in that cockpit was ambient creaks and noises from the plane's frame, with the undertone of air whistling over the wings.
The ground was getting closer even as it flew underneath us at 130 mph. "Too fast," I kept thinking to myself as we descended. Finally we touched down with a thud. As he planned to do, Stan kept the plane teetering on one wheel while guiding us slowly toward the grass on my side of the runway. Then the moment of truth: touching down the wing. This is where most planes would've done precisely what Stan feared most, and that was to go into a death spin, wing over wing, until the plane and those in it were all but obliterated. But wouldn't you know it? The landing gear opposite the broken one simply snapped off under the pressure created by the wing touching down.
Suddenly we found ourselves in a harrowing belly slide through the dirt at over 100 mph, with a sewage ditch waiting for us. As we slowed down, thoughts of hope started to creep in. "We might make it!" I thought to myself, only seconds before realizing we were careening directly toward the only 4'-wide concrete embankment along the entire 5000' runway. Only 30' from crashing into it, the plane mysteriously lurched to its left and we ended up nose-diving into the ditch just beyond the embankment.
The plane had stopped. I was rattled, but nothing was hurting. Stan seemed ok. We both sat in stunned quiet for a few moments before Stan finally yelled "Get ooout! Ruuun!" while frantically removing his safety belts. I frantically removed mine as well, and we both spilled out of our respective sides of the cockpit into the sewage. We leapt to our feet and each ran for all we were worth in opposite directions of the plane, believing it might explode at any second. The explosion never came, though. Stan had burned enough fuel.
Later that day I went to the public pool on my college campus. Adrenaline-seeking college student that I was, I had already forgotten about the danger and injury I'd been spared of and concerned myself only with telling an exciting story to my friends. Almost every person I spoke with that day and in the days that immediately followed asked some variant of the question, "Do you think it'll change your life in some way?" Each time I just shrugged.
Fifteen years on, I am still intermittently plagued by that question. Or maybe not that question per se, but the corollary of it: "Have I justified my life since the crash?" In countless ways, I have not. I am one of the most well-disguised selfish people I know. On most days, I view my life as not being important in itself, but at best a neutral instrument for effecting meaning in the lives of others. "It's not my own life that matters so much as the lives of those I've played a crude role in bringing into being," I often think to myself.
I speak of my children, in that I was physically required to bring them about. I fall short in countless ways as a husband, as well as a dad. And I don't say that as a kind of token Father's Day display of false humility. My family has struggled in numerous ways throughout the intervening years since the plane crash (my girlfriend and I were married the following summer), almost solely because of my own reluctance to make responsible, forward-thinking decisions for the sake of our family's stability. I have an anger problem that has followed me from my childhood, and my wife and children have all been negatively shaped by that weakness to varying degrees. My personal battle to conquer various other demons is primarily a story of surrender. And by surrender, I mean to my demons.
If not for my wife, I would see my life in almost completely self-loathing terms. If not for my wife, today I would answer the question of whether I've justified my life with a resounding "no." But my wife loves me. And this morning my mother in Texas called me, and on the other end I heard the voices of my three oldest daughters shouting, "Happy Father's Day! We love you!" A little 22-month-old girl named Joanna Rebekah, who has me by the throat, waddled over to me at the breakfast table and hugged my leg tightly. I could hear her little voice sigh the word "Daddy". And around Thanksgiving of this year, by God's unmerited grace, my fifth child will be born.
I'm slowly learning that the value of one's life cannot be measured strictly by one's spiritual successes. The degree to which one creates and/or enables life in others is consequential in its own right.
Years ago I took a series of Facebook quizzes with titles like, "What literary character are you?" Those quizzes are meaningless, but after taking a few of them, I began to read books and watch movies with an eye toward identifying which character reminds me of myself. The Lord of the Rings provides a good example. While I'd love to identify with Gandalf, Aragorn, or Samwise Gamgee, the most noble Josh Lowery analog in that book is probably Boromir, a character who spends most of his time in the story losing sight of the highest goal, but who ultimately gives his life to save others when it matters most.
I can only hope to live up to Boromir's accomplishments. And by God's mercy, and for the sake of my wife and children, exceed them by a little.
The Speed Queen (SQ) 2000
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