Plane Crash!

“Plane Crash!” Ensign, July 1984, 26

Plane Crash!

I don’t know how long I had been asleep, but I awoke abruptly to find our plane shaken by turbulence and the clear night changed to cloudiness. As I looked over at Mike, the pilot of our small twin-engine craft, I could see the concern on his face. He was adjusting the throttles and checking the instruments. The rhythmic sound of the engines had changed to a disharmony that, even with my limited flying experience, made me uncomfortable. I knew all was not well. Another glance at Mike confirmed my fears.

Mike called the Salt Lake radar center. He explained to them that we were losing manifold pressure and losing altitude. I didn’t say anything. At that moment, I didn’t feel a sense of great concern. I wouldn’t allow my mind to consider that we were in any real danger. Mike communicated with Salt Lake radar control again. “I believe we are experiencing carburetor icing,” he said. “We are falling like a rock.”

I felt a shot of adrenalin surge through me. Could I still be asleep? I was stunned. But continued turbulence, along with watching the numbers on the plane’s altimeter gauge drop, soon convinced me that this was anything but a dream.

Earlier that evening, Mike and I had flown out of Las Vegas, returning to Salt Lake City. We had been on a business trip to Phoenix, Arizona. After the plane had climbed to fifteen thousand feet, I relaxed, thinking how glad I was to have this week’s business trip behind me and how wonderful it would be to surprise my wife, Karin, who wasn’t expecting me home until sometime Friday morning.

Mike and I had flown together often. He is a close friend and a very thorough and careful pilot, and I felt at ease as I settled back to enjoy the flight to Salt Lake City. I made a mental note of how beautiful the night sky was as we flew through the heavens. There was for me a feeling of closeness to God as I looked at the earth below and his creations above.

I had often wondered how God could be mindful of all his creations. How can he hear the prayers of all his children and care about each individual? Those thoughts and the rhythmic hum of the engines had lulled me to sleep. I was now anything but sleepy, watching with mounting anxiety as Mike struggled to gain control of the airplane.

As the moments passed, it became increasingly obvious that we were not going to reach a safe area for landing. We were falling fast into rugged mountain terrain. We could see nothing but darkness and hear only the cry of the plane’s stall warning signal indicating that our speed had dropped below the safe flying level. A feeling of helplessness came over me that is impossible to describe.

I was suddenly hit with the cold reality that the laws of nature, of gravity and aerodynamics, are no respecters of persons. The elements do not consider what is fair, or that the lives of family and loved ones would be so dramatically changed if Mike and I were killed. I asked Mike if there was any chance of reaching Salt Lake City. He said, “No, we’re going down.” He added that we wouldn’t feel anything. Death would come instantly.

I had often wondered what people think about when death is inevitable. I wondered if their lives flashed before them. I wondered if there was a feeling of panic.

My thoughts were of my family. The faces of each of my eight children were projected in my mind—seven fine sons and a single daughter. How could this be happening? They needed their father. I needed them. I thought of my unsuspecting wife, who would be strong but painfully heavyhearted. My sorrow was for her and the loneliness she would feel. I saw the image of my angel mother and felt her grief. I envisioned my father trying to comfort everyone. I remember feeling strange and even surprised that I wasn’t filled with fear and panic for myself, but rather I felt sorrow for those who would be left behind. I thought of goals not yet achieved and promises not yet fulfilled. All these thoughts and many more were condensed into only a few seconds, as if time stood still briefly so that I could think them.

I looked at Mike and observed again his intensity and concentration. He said, “Pray for us, Steve.” I had been praying; but when Mike requested that I say a prayer, I was suddenly more forcefully aware that all his flight training and experience couldn’t save us. He was placing the responsibility upon me to call upon the powers of heaven. He realized that the only one who could intervene to control our destiny was the Lord. Mike could only be an instrument in His hands.

I prayed again, this time with more intensity than I had ever concentrated on a prayer before. I knew only God could grant us life. I felt impressed to call upon the power of the priesthood; and so, in my prayer I commanded the plane, by the power of the holy priesthood, to stay together and protect us. I was a little surprised at my boldness, but felt a confirming peace. I knew that I must now exercise the needed faith. We had never had the feeling of panic; now a comforting spirit was with us.

As I finished praying and looked out the window, there was still no visibility. The engines sounded worse. We were losing altitude at an alarming rate, and the stall warning continued to sound.

We radioed the Salt Lake City tower for the last time to give them our position and present altitude. They informed us that we were well below the safe altitude for that area. The mountain peaks were above us.

Mike asked me if I was afraid. I told him I only felt sorrow for Karin and the children. He expressed similar feelings about his family. We exchanged expressions of appreciation to each other for the close friendship and camaraderie we had shared. Then we waited.

I looked out my window, blindly searching for the ground. As the strobe light flashed on the wing tip, I saw a rugged mountain peak a few feet off the end of the wing. The plane banked to the left. As Mike leveled the wings, I looked down and saw the ground. I was alarmed at how fast it appeared we were going. We were only a few feet from impact.

The next thing I remember was the sound and force of the airplane hitting the ground. A tremendous first jolt threw me forward; my forehead hit something, but my mind stayed clear and didn’t register pain. We were sliding now in total darkness. It was like running blindfolded through a strange house, expecting any moment to trip over something or smash into a wall.

The sliding continued. How long would it be before we smashed into a rock or a tree or a mountain-side? I expected another blow, but it did not come. Instead, the plane slid to a stop. Then there was total silence.

We felt an urgency to get out, fearing an explosion. I opened the door, and we scrambled out into the darkness, away from the plane. I was now aware that I had been hurt. I was losing a lot of blood through injuries to my forehead, but I was alive! I knew that the Lord had preserved us.

Mike had not been hurt. He wasted no time administering first aid to me. I could feel the blood surging from my head and was aware of pain, but somehow the pain felt reassuring. We both gave thanks to our Father in Heaven for life.

After evaluating the situation, Mike felt an urgency to go for help. He feared I might be hemorrhaging internally because of my blurred vision; he knew that if I were, time was critical. After inspecting the aircraft for gasoline leakage and determining that there was no danger of a fire, Mike helped me back into the plane, giving me blankets and a sleeping bag.

I didn’t know how much blood I had lost and didn’t dare fall asleep while Mike was gone. I set my watch to go off every fifteen minutes so I would stay conscious. I remembered that in my briefcase was my personal journal, which also contained a five-by-seven picture of my family. I found the case, opened it, and located my journal. I kept myself awake by looking at the picture of my family and making entries in my journal every fifteen minutes. Mike had left me at 11:30 P.M. I worried and prayed for his safety all night.

I could hear the engines of search planes at about 3:00 A.M., but it wasn’t until 5:00 A.M. that one came close enough to the wreckage to see my flashlight signal. The pilot tipped his wing, acknowledging that he had seen my signal. Surely I would soon be rescued, and certainly Mike had found help.

Four more hours passed before a rescue party and helicopter were able to get to the crash sight. They had neither seen nor heard from Mike. It wasn’t until about 11:00 A.M. that he found a highway and was picked up, then taken to the hospital, where we had a great reunion. He had hiked and jogged throughout the night, hoping to lead help to the wreckage and not knowing what my condition might be. It was an act of true brotherly love and bravery.

Some say we were lucky—a chance in a million. But I have no doubt that it was not a matter of luck. We were saved by our Heavenly Father.

I have since asked myself why he intervened. Many have died in similar circumstances. I’m sure they prayed and wanted to live. Why should the Lord be so mindful of us? I spent that night in the wreckage of the airplane considering this question. I felt the quiet reassurance that our lifespan is measured by a power greater than our own. Mike and I had not yet completed our missions—we were not appointed unto death. In the ten or so hours before being rescued, I expressed thanks to the Lord and promised I would use this gift of life, first, to bless the lives of my family members and, second, in the service of others wherever He would have me serve.