I was flying across the country, from Richmond, Virginia to
San Francisco, California, taking the scenic route, in a
single engine Mooney. As we crossed the lip of Arizona's
Grand Canyon, we dipped down into it. Moments later, the
plane caught on fire and we crashed in the Grand Canyon. I
was 28 years old and the priorities of my life immediately
crystallized. Nothing like a near-near-death experience to
discover what's meaningful in life.
all began when Lloyd, an old friend and a distinguished
professor of Urban Planning at the University of Richmond,
called to ask if I'd like to fly with him to San Francisco.
I unhesitatingly said, "Yes!" Coming with us, he
said, would be Nubuko, a Japanese exchange student attending
Virginia Commonwealth University. Nubuko was the opposite of
what Americans thought of when they thought of Japanese
women - she was smart and sassy, determined not to be like
traditional Japanese women.
following weekend the three of us drove north out of
Richmond to the woodsy, quiet Henrico Airport, and checked
out the Mooney. The Mooney is rated as the most reliable
single engine small plane built. The wings are low, you step
up onto them to get in - we loaded up and took off. Lloyd
was an excellent pilot and had been flying for over thirty
years. He'd made this trip many times as he divided his life
between San Francisco where he'd married, had kids, divorced
and now Richmond, Virginia where he worked.
flew from Richmond to Mississippi on the first leg, to
Amarillo for the second leg, and then to Taos, where we
stayed at the home of Kate Lyman, an airline stewardess
originally from Richmond. She was, for me, the epitome of
womanhood and I adored her. Her house was up in the
mountains, nestled in a little grove of trees, with the
irrigation ditch close by and a blazing garden. It was
unlike anything I'd ever seen - except in Georgia O'Keefe
we said goodbye to Taos and we pushed on to our next
destination, Las Vegas. The Mooney was a short hopper. We
flew from small airport to small airport. At the airport we
filed our flight plan. This is the only way the FAA can
track you - in case something happens. Lloyd, at the airport
counter surrounded by maps, asked, "Do you want to fly
over the Grand Canyon or take the more direct route?"
no explainable reason, I said, "No, I've never wanted
to see the Grand Canyon - definitely not, let's go another
way." In fact, my inner voice was very definite about
not wanting to go there, fly over it, or in any way get near
it. Nubuko, new in America, said, "I'd love to see the
Grand Canyon. In fact, I want to see all the wonders of
America." Again, I insisted, "No, I don't want to
see go there. What are our other choices?"
surprised at my reaction said, "Sandra, it is so unlike
you to be so vehement about anything, much less flying over
one of the wonders of the world - this place is filled with
geologic history." I felt very strongly that I didn't
want to go, but had had so little experience with being
assertive, I gave in.
took two false starts to get off the top of Taos Mountain.
The updrafts were powerful. That little Mooney was a great
plane though. Like the little engine that could, the Mooney
was sweet, gentle and always ready for one more trip. On our
third try we were off and into the wild blue yonder.
was the navigator, having flown many times before in small
planes, and controlled the radio for Lloyd. It was a
perfect, cloudless, warm August day. We got to the rim of
the Canyon in short order, flew right over the rim and down
into it and proceeded to dip, first the right wing, then the
left, so we'd have perfectly unobstructed views. Nubuko was
ooing and ahhing in the back seat. I, on the other hand, was
looking for our exact coordinates on the map and locating
the next radio beacon. Finally the overwhelming beauty
entranced me, too. What can you say about the Grand Canyon?
It is magnificent. Words can't come close to describing the
contrast of the age of humanity to the grandiosity of the
Canyon. Each of us was overcome with the power of nature and
captivated with the views outside the plane.
suddenly, the plane was filled with smoke. Flames were
leaping from the engine. The engine was sputtering. Lloyd
grabbed the radio, shouting out, "May day, may day, may
day. This is bravo-niner.." calling out our plane's
registration and location, "We have a fire."
we had the same thought; this plane is going to blow up as
soon as the fire gets to the gas tanks. In those brief
moments, for me, time slowed down. All movements were in
slow motion. My mind was exquisitely aware of everything -
the colors of the Canyon, the fear in Nukubo's crying and
Lloyd's intensely professional demeanor. In this quiet,
almost peaceful state of mind, even realizing that the plane
was about to blow up, I never panicked. Almost in a
meditative state, I had one clear thought - I never told my
Dad how much I loved him. It became clear that the only
thing that matters when you believe you are going to die is
love - who you love and how you've loved, when you've
withheld it and when it's been given freely. That is all
that is important.
I just knew, completely and totally, as sure as I was of
anything that we'd be okay. I tried to calm Nubuko. She had
become hysterical. The fire went out and the smoke cleared
from the cabin. We were in free fall. We weren't going to
blow up. Thank God, the Mooney is a small, delicate plane
and so we were gliding - downward, but nonetheless gliding.
Unfortunately, because of those wind drafts, we couldn't
glide up and over the rim where we could land.
Nubuko, and I scanned the Canyon for a place to set the
plane down. There is nowhere to land in the Canyon. No flat
stretches at all, anywhere. To crash in the Canyon was maybe
better than blowing up but not much better, we nervously
agreed. We saw in the far distance, about half way down the
Canyon a sort of shelf sticking out from the Canyon wall. It
was equal to the level we were flying, so we thought if we
could keep the plane up in the sky that high we could force
land and maybe walk away. I think that by the power of our
will, and maybe all three of us holding our breath
simultaneously, and God's blessing, we made it to the edge
of the mesa. The mesa looked relatively clear from way out
there, a mile or so back, but as we got closer and closer we
discovered it was covered in huge red boulders.
zipped Nubuko into Lloyd's leather garment bag and snuggled
her down behind my seat so she'd be protected, as much as
possible, and made sure our seat belts were tight. As we
approached, Lloyd and I nervously laughed, listening to
Nubuko crying and obviously praying through the leather
garment bag. After every five or six Japanese words, we'd
forced landing was a little bumpy - boulders knocked off the
wings, broke the landing gear, and shattered the glass
windshield, but we were okay. The plane finally came to a
halt and I unzipped Nubuko and we ran from the plane -
afraid again that it might blow up.
all looked at each other thankful to be alive.
kept grabbing us, hugging us, and making sure we were okay.
Lloyd and I were cut, but we had no broken bones. Nubuko
looked like she'd been casually passing by - thanks to that
nice leather garment bag, not a scratch on her.
we were standing gawking at each other, we heard a voice
from up in the sky, "Are you alright, down there?"
It was like God was speaking to us and we turned like a trio
of cartoon characters to see a Grand Canyon Tour Plane
circling. We signaled that we had no broken bones and the
pilot replied that help was on the way.
was 11AM. We had no water, no food, and not even a piece of
gum between us. What were we thinking? After exploring the
mesa a bit we sat under the broken wing and told each other
our life stories. I believe that each of us synthesized our
beliefs right there. Because of my experience, I talked
about ideals, and absolutes. I said that I believed in the
good of humankind, in following my heart and consequently,
was mainly concerned with what happened to the plane and
took the entire engine apart to find that a simple
insignificant oil hose had burst and caused the fire. More
importantly, he wondered if his insurance would pay for
removing the plane from the Grand Canyon? Nubuko declared
she would never fly again. And she didn't.
mesa was about a half mile long and quarter mile deep, the
cliff to the top would be a difficult climb for a
professional climber, and we wondered how they'd get us out.
We knew there was no way we could go down - it was one
hellacious drop. In fact, we kept walking to the edge and
looking down, each of us thinking our own thoughts about
what could've happened. It was already really hot, and we
knew that the temperature dropped to near freezing at night
so we were eager to be out of there. We also thought the
rescue team would be right along. By 9 PM that night, we
were getting seriously worried, as well as tired, cold and
10 we heard men's voices calling out to us and we leapt up,
ran to these, handsome U. S. Park Rangers. We hugged them.
They gave us these canteens of water and we drank them down.
Afterwards, we decided that that water must've been in those
canteens for weeks - it was nasty, metallic tasting but
gloriously wet. We gathered our stuff (luckily, we were all
light packers) and hiked out. Well, really we were pushed,
pulled and dragged up that cliff. But we got to the top.
when we did we were met by the Sheriff of the Grand Canyon
County. We were dirty, cold, exhausted and scared. It was
almost midnight. We crashed at 11 AM in the morning! They
were sitting in their car with the heater on and when we
dragged ourselves over the top, one stepped out - the driver
saying to him, "Can you handle this, son?"
driver was a big fat guy and the one walking towards us, was
a double for Barney Fife from the Andy Griffin Show. His gun
went down to his knee, with obvious implications, and he
walked with a swagger. He met us halfway, looked us over and
asked Lloyd, "You folks having some trouble?"
couldn't believe that was his opening remark. Before I
caught myself, I said, "No, we do this all the time.
Just fun and games for us." Lloyd hushed me and the
Deputy said we had to fill out these forms for the FAA
before we could be driven into town. Lloyd did. Nubuko and I
got in the car, in a back seat with no handles to get out,
and warmed up. The Park Rangers wished us well and drove
Sheriff informed us that we were a long way from
civilization. It was a very dark night. The Sheriff was
shining his spotlight into the woods as we drove along. We
were exhausted and quiet. They were laconic. Finally, I
asked, "Why are you shining that light in the
woods?" "Well, if I see a little ole doe, I'm
going to jump out and shoot her." Gee, I thought, don't
let our ordeal interrupt your survival needs or maybe that
was his entertainment.
ventured, "You folks crashing are the most exciting
thing that'd happened around there in a long time, years
maybe. The last excitement was when WE drove an old Indian
epileptic to the hospital in Flagstaff." He also
volunteered that if we'd had broken bones they'd flown a
helicopter from Flagstaff to pick us up within the hour! If
only we'd known our options.
arrived at Desert Village. Never was I so glad to see
people. It was almost 3 a.m.. A newspaper reporter wanted to
interview us and a restaurant owner tried to serve us big
T-bone steaks - we were big news in Desert Village. More
importantly, in a resort town where people book hotel rooms
years in advance, they kept two rooms open for us. Nubuko
and I fell into bed and slept like the dead. But we were
alive. It wasn't until the next day that it all hit me-and I
cried all day long.
Years of Searching
the culmination of thirty years of searching to bring the
best possible balanced information to those of us Paul Ray
has defined as "the cultural creatives."