Grand Crash
Sandra Martin, CEO, Paraview

 

Sandra MartinI 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.

It 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.

The 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.

We 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 books.

Reluctantly, 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?"

For 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?"

Lloyd 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.

It 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.

I 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.

Then, 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."

Simultaneously, 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.

Then 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.

Lloyd, 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.

I 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 hear "Jesus."

Our 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.

We all looked at each other thankful to be alive.

Lloyd 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.

While 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.

It 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, living purely.

Lloyd 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.

The 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 hungry.

Around 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.

And 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?"

The 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?"

I 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 off.

The 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.

He 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.

We 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.

Sincerely,

Sandra Martin


Thirty Years of Searching
Paraview.com is 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."

 

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