What It's Like to Survive a Plane Crash
Bill Brown has a winner of an icebreaker story. But it’s one he doesn’t tell often. Imagine a brand-new pencil eraser being worn down to a nub in a matter of seconds. That’s how the Kentucky native describes watching the front end of a single-engine Piper Cherokee disintegrate before his eyes when he was 16 years old. With him inside.
When the horrible cacophony of shredding metal went silent and the small airplane came to a stop at a downward slant on an abandoned runway atop a West Virginia mountain, there was stillness. Like the kind at the end of a roller coaster ride. But this was no roller coaster.
To Bill and his three family members in the plane that day, it was nothing short of a series of small miracles. “Minister, Family Escape Injury” read the headline of an article that appeared in the Williamson Daily News (W. Va.), which also referred to Bill’s father as the “flying pastor.”
“God or fate or whatever you want to call it allowed us to live,” Bill shares as he sits among a colorful collection of artwork, oversized marbles and figurines in his cozy office at Virginia Wesleyan University, where he has served as director of student counseling services for 20 years. “Because by all intents and purposes, generally the odds were pretty against managing what happened that day.”
Bill Brown, director of student counseling services at Virginia Wesleyan University.
Bill’s mother and 7-year-old sister were in the plane’s two rear seats when it happened. As he often did from the time he was 13 or 14, Bill was riding in the front alongside his dad, an Episcopal priest and Army veteran who had become an experienced pilot thanks to the GI Bill. Dad had taught Bill some of the basics and occasionally even let him take a turn on the controls. For the teenager, flying had become, well, kind of humdrum.
“I enjoyed it,” he remembers, “but it wasn’t that ‘wow’ kind of thing for me as a kid. In fact, dad used to joke that I would fall asleep after taking off.”
But no one was sleeping on that summer day in 1972 when, on a return flight from a family visit to Norfolk, their small rental plane began to lose altitude. They would later learn that an incorrectly calibrated fuel gauge indicated the tank was half full when, in reality, it was nearly bone dry.
Somewhere over the mountains of West Virginia, Bill’s father went into crisis management mode. He started hailing airfields, including one in Mercer County over 100 miles away. No one else in the plane made a sound. They knew something wasn’t right.
Bill’s dad issued a “mayday.” Then he calmly enlisted Bill’s help in looking for someplace, any place, for an emergency landing. That’s when they saw it: a clearly man-made crevasse cut into one of the blue-green mountaintops below. Inside the crevasse, a tiny airfield and runway. Call it small miracle number one.
The passage was narrow, and the runway, what was left of it, was crumbling down the mountain on one side. But it was a runway—on top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere.
“It was really a miracle to us to see that,” says Bill. “The chances of that are just really incredible. Dad said if we had to go down in the mountains, we probably all would have died. It’s very hard to survive a small plane crash in the woods.”
They approached the runway from one end, flying between the two peaks created by the cut into the mountaintop. As they drew closer to the ground, a sudden gust of wind lifted the plane’s nose upward. That’s when Bill’s dad made a split-second decision.
Enter small miracle number two. It’s standard procedure, when a plane is caught by an updraft during landing, to ride the gust upward and simply circle back around and attempt the landing again. That’s the safest thing to do, says Bill. On any other day, that’s what his dad would have done.
But something in his gut told him they wouldn’t make it if they did. And, despite a fuel gauge that was still telling him otherwise, he was right. They were running on fumes. If they had taken another pass at the runway, they surely would have run out of fuel, crashed and likely died.
Instead he decided to force the plane down onto the runway against the updraft. They hit the ground nose first and hard. Then came the disintegrating pencil eraser that used to be the front of the plane, the deafening noise, the paralyzing fear. There was flying debris that left a trail of metal and the plane’s propeller somewhere off on the side of the mountain. Finally, there was the family of four, banged up, in shock, but otherwise unharmed.
“I was very banged up because I was in the front,” Bill recalls. “We had harnesses, but it was so severe that it crushed the whole front of the plane back. It took the yoke, which looks like a U-shaped metal thing on a pole that you turn to go up and down, and it just jammed that and pushed it into my chest. I hurt for a month after that. And I think my family had some bruises. But we were so glad that we weren’t dead.”
A few seconds after the crash, a new and very real fear set in: fire. Bill and his family quickly scrambled out of their seats and down onto the runway to avoid being consumed by flames if the plane exploded. Little did they realize at the time, there was no need. There was not a drop of fuel left in the plane to catch fire. That was small miracle number three.
Small miracle number four came in the form of a man who lived in the nearby town of Williamson. He happened to see the plane descending into the treetops and figured something was wrong. Not long after, he showed up offering help. The runway, he told them, was known as Williamson's Folly and was built by a man who once owned the property but had long since abandoned it. It had been sitting unused and in disrepair for many years.
Bill’s dad inquired as to whether there was an Episcopal church in town. There was, the man replied, and the next thing they knew, they were piling into the man’s pickup truck and heading down the mountain. In town, a fellow Episcopal priest from the church and his family took them in for the night before they were able to get a ride home to Kentucky the next day.
An FAA investigation confirmed the details of the event, including the faulty fuel gauge, and concluded that Bill’s father’s quick decision making had undoubtedly saved all of their lives.
“It was really traumatic,” says Bill. “For me, I just felt like I was in a daze. For mom, I think it was more traumatic. It freaked her out worse. She never flew with dad again.”
But Bill’s father encouraged him to “get back in the saddle” out of worry that the experience might turn him off to flying altogether if he didn’t. That’s what Bill did, foreshadowing his future career choice.
“I was a little nervous, but I kept telling myself good therapist stuff—that the chance of something like that occurring again were almost infinitesimal. So, I just kind of rode it through.”
His faith, too, helped him process the experience and put it into perspective. Today, he says, he doesn’t mind commercial flying but that he still doesn’t care for landings and takeoffs.
“I felt like a lot of the reason that we got through was that we were being taken care of, and I still to this day feel that. I think my faith helped me view it as something totally outside of the ordinary and to fight those thoughts of ‘Oh my God, this could happen again.’”
Remarkably, at age 64, Bill says he hasn’t told the story of having survived a plane crash all that many times in his life.
“By this time, it’s so long ago to me that it’s just another part of my past. When I do bring it up, it’s usually in the course of an icebreaker at a professional conference when they ask, ‘Has anyone had anything happen to them that they think no one else has?’ That one’s usually a winner.”