On December 2nd, the fog had lifted and it was a beautiful, crisp morning in Owatonna when we took off for the football game at Lambeau Field. The trip had been planned a couple weeks earlier to watch the Vikings crush the Packers on their home turf -- or at least that’s what I hoped. My flight instructor and friend, Scott, along with Dan Cronk, my Packer-backer friend and his son, Colin, were ready for the short trip to Wisconsin. We stood on the tarmac as Colin's mom took one last picture, climbed into the Cessna 172 with the tail number of N9853Q and taxied to the runway. Within minutes, we climbed into the sky and were on our way.
The trip to Lambeau was calm and uneventful. You have to keep the Packer jokes respectable with a 9 year old on board. As we neared the Austin Straubel International Airport in Green Bay, we were diverted for over 20 minutes as they cleared the airspace for Zygi Wilf (the owner of the Minnesota Vikings) to land in his swanky jet. “Apparently, we’re not as important as him,” I thought as we circled in our little puddle jumper. Those thoughts quickly faded as we emerged below the clouds to a wonderful sight of Lambeau field on our left and the runway straight ahead. Pictures were snapped to capture the memorable moment.
Within minutes, we were on the ground and taxiing towards the terminals. We taxied by three F-18’s that would later do the “flyover” during the National Anthem at the game. The pilots were in their planes and waved to us.
“That was awesome,” Cronk said out loud.
We pulled up to Lambeau Field which is an amazing and impressive stadium. I am definitely not a Packer fan, but can appreciate the history and tradition of this sacred place. The F-18’s performed their flyover followed by an amazing game in which the Vikings actually lead for most of it. Okay, we did end up losing in the end but I am a glass is half-full kind of guy. :) After a quick tour of the stadium, it was time to head home.
The flight home was another unforgettable experience. It started with a short chat at the airport with Zygi’s personal pilot and then we watched Zygi arrive, enter his plane and head towards the runway for takeoff. We decided it was time to line up and head home ourselves. The ride was calm, pleasant and beautiful. We took pictures of the sunset and puffy clouds below as we headed towards Rochester. Life was good and we experienced something that very few would ever have the opportunity to do. Little did we know, another experience was about to occur that would change our lives forever.
We were 30-40 miles from Rochester when discussions about the weather became more serious. Planes were being diverted due to heavy fog. The air traffic controller suggested Dodge Center or Waseca as a "clear" option. After a brief discussion, we decided that Dodge Center would be a smart choice.
Our pilot, Scott, called up weather information for Dodge Center only to discover conditions had worsened. It was no longer an option to land in Dodge Center. Rochester Tower chimed in again and asked us what we wanted to do. ATC suggested Austin while we pondered our options. We joked about heading to Owatonna and hitting up happy hour at Applebees while we waited for our wives to come pick us up. Ultimately, the smart choice was Austin.
Just as we turned, a Citation flying a few thousand feet below us decided to attempt landing in Rochester. I watched out the window as the Citation disappeared into the clouds toward the barely visible flashing runway approach lights. ATC then reported that they had successfully landed and asked us what we wanted to do. In the blink of an eye, Scott decided to attempt the landing. We turned towards Runway 13.
We descended into the clouds. From that point on, I never saw runway lights or anything on the ground. I recall looking at the altimeter briefly and noticing our slow decent towards the ground. From the time that I actually saw the ground to impact, there was no time to react, grab for the controls or even say anything. I saw the ground for a split second and then "BAM!", we were hanging upside down.
“Oh my God! Get out of the plane before it explodes!” Scott shouted.
“Cronk, Colin," I yelled, "are you okay?”
Both responded and I felt a huge sigh of relief. We were all alive! I reached for my seatbelt and quickly unlatched it, crashing to the roof of the plane. It was pitch black. I couldn’t find the door handle. A window popped open during the crash so I crawled through the small opening. Once outside, I realized that I was standing on the wing. I heard Colin say, “How do I get out?” in a scared voice. I leaned through the window opening and said, “Colin, crawl over here!” A few seconds later I saw his legs appear and I pulled him from the wreckage.
Remembering that Scott said the plane could explode, Colin and I moved 30-40 feet away from the crash site. Dan was outside by now and slowly walked over to us. Scott, running toward us, yelled “Call 911!”
My phone was still in my pocket so I handed it to Scott and turned my attention to Dan and Colin to see if they were injured. Dan said, “I think I’m going to pass out, my stomach hurts.” Colin, in a very frightened voice said, “Is my dad going to die? I want to go home. I want my mom... How are they going to find us?” I reassured him that we would be okay and to stay by his dad.
Remembering I had a flashlight in my flight bag, I foolishly decided to run back to the plane to locate it. When I arrived back at the plane I could hear a buzzing sound and saw the red battery warning light was on. “Turn off the power,” I thought to myself. I attempted to find the master power switch but realized the dash was gone or not in the place I expected it to be (in a crumpled and upside down state).
Unable to find my flight bag and the flashlight, I noticed my jacket and grabbed the blankets that we used at the game. Running back to Colin and Dan, I said, “Here Dan, lay down on these.”
Meanwhile, Scott continued talking with 911. We could see lights and hear sirens in the distance but they couldn't see us through the fog.
“Google Maps," I thought. I asked Dan for his phone and pulled up the app. I could see right where we were. I yelled to Scott, “We’re 1/4 mile SW of runway 13!” He quickly relayed this information. It seemed like an eternity as we waited. We were concerned for Dan, as he kept repeating “My stomach hurts, I’m going to pass out.”
By now, we could see rescue trucks in the near distance. Scott was still talking on the phone with 911. “Help! Help! Help!” I heard him hollering to the rescue vehicles (ATC Audio - 30 Minutes). I used Dan’s cell phone as a light and ran towards the road waving it back and forth. Eventually, they noticed me so I turned around and ran back to the group.
“I’m going to call Kim,” I told Dan in a concerned voice. "Oh man, how am I going to tell her that we were in a plane crash?” I thought. She answered immediately, “Where are you?!?!” Somehow, she knew something was wrong. Little did I know, Dan sent our wives a cryptic text over 10 minutes earlier.
“Honey, I want you to stay calm and I’m not kidding.... but we crashed. I need you to meet us at St. Mary’s.” The rest of the conversation was a blur. As I hung up the phone, I realized that the fire trucks were making their way through the field to the crash site.
“Holy shit,” I thought, “I can’t believe we're alive!”
Approximately 20 minutes after we crashed, a firefighter walked up to me and asked if I was okay. I told him that Dan was in the worst condition and to help him first. Within seconds, there seemed to be hundreds of firetrucks, ambulances and emergency personnel around us. With blood running down my face from a cut on my forehead, a firefighter began holding my neck in place and wouldn’t let me move.
They put a neck brace on and strapped me to a vertical board. I began to shake frantically and realized that shock was setting in. They put me in an ambulance with Dan, who was already inside. Colin was sitting in the front seat. “Thank God” I thought, "Colin is doing so well they let him ride in front seat!" I had planned this trip and it was a huge relief to know that he was okay. I couldn't imagine the guilt if anything happened to him.
After six hours of x-rays and CT scans at St. Mary's, we all walked out -- ALIVE.
In the following days, I have had a lot of time to reflect on the experience and “what it has all meant.” The FAA investigator said it best when he told me, “I’ve done lots and lots of airplane crash investigations; it's not often that I have someone to talk to. You should go buy a lottery ticket, you are very lucky.” Unfortunately, I still don’t have all the answers but I’m very humbled and thankful to be alive.
With that, I decided to put together a list of things that I’ve learned from this experience. Consider it my gift to you for all of the well wishes, thoughts and prayers this past week.
5 Lessons from an Airplane Crash:
1. Life is Short – We have all said this a thousand times but it wasn’t until the 4th day after the crash that I thought to myself, “instead of going to volleyball practice today, Kylie would have been going to my funeral.” If that doesn’t make you realize how quickly things can change in a few seconds, nothing will. Take the time to enjoy each day as you never really know when it might be your last.
2. Keep Things in Perspective – As a small business owner, my ‘to-do’ list is never ending and my work demands are considerable. In addition, the yard work needs to be done, the house cleaned and kids’ homework done. But in the larger scheme of things, these are manageable obstacles. Keep the things which frustrate you in perspective and don’t get worked up over the little things that don’t really matter.
3. Forgive & Move On– Everyone makes mistakes and hindsight is always 20/20. You can always tell yourself, “I should have done this or said that and this would have never happened.” It’s not fair to define your entire existence over one mis-step. Acknowledge your mistakes, learn from them and then use that knowledge to be a better person. Give yourself credit for all the wonderful things you do and the value you have provided to other people’s lives.
4. Don’t Judge – It’s easy to be judgmental of others and the choices they make. My initial reaction was to blame Scott and the decision to attempt the landing. How could he have attempted landing in those weather conditions? Was it too dangerous to even try? Should I have said something? Human tendency is to do this more often than we should. We look at others and say “how can they let their kids be that obnoxious, wear those clothes, etc.” Nobody is perfect, and that includes you. The next time you start thinking about how someone else needs to improve, turn that effort towards improving yourself.
5. Prioritize Your Life – It’s been almost 20 years since I’ve graduated from high school. While I’m very comfortable with my accomplishments thus far, there is so much more that can be done. If Sunday night at 6:33pm had been the end of my journey here on earth, how would I have been remembered? What more could I have done to have a lasting impression on those who knew me? Even more important, how many more lives can I impact over the next 20 years? It’s time for me to prioritize and put what is truly important first. If you want to make a change in your life, the best time was yesterday. The second best time is today.