I should have been killed in a plane crash on January 22, 1971. I was flying a Navy T-28 Trojan aircraft on a training mission as an instructor. The weather was horrible; a storm was moving up into the area from the Gulf of Mexico.
All aircraft were recalled to land except me. I was ordered to complete my 2.6-hour flight as I graded my two students flying solo in close formation. We completed the flight and were ready to land just as the storm reached the field from the south. We couldn’t get in, so the controller instructed me to see if we could beat the storm by flying around and entering the field from the north.
As we approached from the north, I could see that if we made it, it was going to be very close. I increased my airspeed to rapidly get into position with my two students, but they suddenly disappeared into a cloudbank. I lost sight of them at a 40-knot closure rate, and I was directly behind the two aircraft and at the same altitude. I radioed the lead student and asked if he could still see the ground.
“Barely, Sir,” he replied as I flew into a complete whiteout.
I had less than ten seconds to react or I knew I would hit them. I closed my throttle, activated my speed brake, and hung a hard left turn to avoid the collision. As I was doing this, I continued talking to the students, instructing them to make an immediate right turn and telling them what they needed to do to get out of the storm.
With zero visibility, power off, speed brake down, and in a high angle of bank left turn, I was completely out of balanced flight. I lost control of the airplane. My left turn and instruction for the students to turn right had avoided the collision, but my problems were not over.
My actions and instructions saved the students—when I had them turn right, they flew out of the storm to safety, but I had turned directly into the worst part of it. I experienced a pilot’s worst nightmare, vertigo.
Vertigo is a temporary spatial disorientation during which you completely lose your bearings. The senses give wrong information to the brain, and you cannot tell up from down. It is utter confusion, to put it mildly. I could not read the instruments and couldn’t see outside the cockpit.
By this time, I had retracted my speed brake, but everything I did only accelerated my descent. My altimeter spun closer and closer to zero. I tried everything to stop my descent, but nothing worked. I knew I had to bail out, but just before I initiated bailout procedures, I glanced at the altimeter and saw that I was already below 1,000 feet. My parachute would not open before I hit the ground. I would have to stay in the airplane, struggling to gain control, until I hit the ground. And that was literally a few seconds away.
I pressed my ICS (intercockpit system) button, which is normally used to communicate with a pilot in the rear seat, and I prayed out loud. I said in a loud clear voice, “God, help me!” I know He would have heard me without the ICS, but I think I just wanted to hear the prayer myself. With the engine noise in the T-28, you can’t hear without a microphone and headset.
God’s answer came instantly.
It was like He raised a shade and instantly closed it—but in that split second, I saw the ground directly out the left side of the cockpit and real close to me.
That moment of clarity instantly cured my vertigo, and I knew I was in a 90-degree left turn with my wing vertical to the ground. I rolled right, and as I did, I was able to read my instruments. I was still in a complete whiteout, but the vertigo was gone.
Praise the Lord for answering that three-word prayer!
It took several seconds for the aircraft to respond, and I watched as my altimeter passed 500 feet, then 400 feet, still descending. It finally leveled off at 300 feet above the ground and began to climb. The nightmare was over—I had control of the aircraft and was climbing.
I climbed higher and higher, thanking God the whole time. I was still in the storm, but without vertigo. I decided not to turn until I saw blue sky and sunshine. I didn’t care which way I was heading or how high I had to climb. When I finally came out on top, I was over Crestview, Florida, flying at 5,000 feet.
My students had turned out of the storm safely and were circling the oil refinery at Jay, Florida. They had to stay at 900 feet to be below the storm. I prayed again that God would help me with what I had to do next, which was to reenter the clouds and descend again in zero visibility to join up with my students.
I did that with no trouble since the vertigo was gone, but I’ll admit it was uncomfortable. I got a little nervous as I neared 900 feet, not able to see until I got below the cloud ceiling. The storm lingered over the field, so we couldn’t fly to our base. We were very low on fuel by this time. All the airfields along the coast were closed.
My squadron got permission for us to fly to Maxwell AFB in Montgomery, Alabama, but we did not have enough fuel to do that. I elected to declare a low-fuel emergency, chose a closed Navy field near Brewton, Alabama, and led my students to a safe landing there.
When I radioed the tower to let them know I was going to land at Brewton, the tower operator said, “You can’t go there; the field is closed. The crash crew has already left and locked the gate.” My last words to him were, “I don’t need a crash crew. I need a runway. Out!” We landed safely, and late that afternoon, the storm passed. They opened the field for us as we took off and flew back to home base at Whiting.
So here are some takeaways from my adventure:
When your life is spinning out of control, ask God for help. He is always in control and will help you get right-side-up. He makes no mistakes.
God will direct you, but you must ask Him to do so and then follow His leading. He has already promised that if you ask Him, He will direct your path. God clearly showed me my situation, and I followed the only way out of it without crashing. He’ll do that for you as well.
Thank God for your victories. I had reached the end of my ability to salvage my situation. My efforts were not working. I asked God to help me, and He did. God is due all the credit for our victories in life.
There will always be another storm to face. The storms of life certainly come to all of us, but God gives the courage to go on. I didn’t like the thought of it, but I had to reenter the storm and fly down through it to get back to my students. I prayed again and asked God to help me through it a second time, and He did. I did not experience vertigo that time and made it safely through the storm. Don’t be afraid to face your storms head-on. You are not alone; you will emerge on the other side victoriously, with God leading the way.
Does this story strike a chord for you? Read the entire May 2018 issue here.
Photo by Alex Lehner