Chapter 1 - The Day We Fell to Earth
Traveling first class has its advantages, and I
have met some really interesting people in the seats next to me.
Ladies and gentlemen, our plane is pretty full. As
people are getting on this afternoon�s flight, please put your largest
bags up above and the smaller bags underneath the seat in front of you�
�I am headed to my home in West Palm Beach,� he replied.
I paused, processing this information. �So do you live there?�
�Well,� he said, �I have a home in West Palm and a home in Littleton, Colorado.�
�Where are you headed?� he asked.
�I am headed down to West Palm on business,� I explained.
�What do you do, Shawn?� he asked.
�I am a professional speaker, trainer, and consultant,� I replied.
�Wow! Really? On what topics?� he asked.
�Well I talk about a lot of things but mostly
leadership, motivation, and creativity,� I said. His eyes lit up. He
smiled. �Well, that is really neat. I kind of always enjoyed that stuff.
I took a Dale Carnegie course on speaking when I was
�Yeah, I have a few.�
�Wow. That is super cool.�
I asked him what he did for a living. He paused in the funny way that people pause when they are searching for the right answer. Maybe he had the answer but paused because he didn�t know how I was going to react to it; I am not really sure. For a moment, his eyes kind of had a cloudy look. He paused and said, �Well, I am a medically retired US Airways pilot. I am out on long-term disability because I was in an accident.�
There are times when the arc of your life changes dramatically and in a heartbeat. The thing is that you often don�t recognize it at the time. Joe and I didn�t know that this was a defining moment for both of us. I try to be aware of the feelings of people around me, although I will admit I don�t always succeed. I sat there for a few minutes in deep thought and wondered if I should ask Joe what happened. I had a conversation with myself in my mind. If I ask, it might be perceived as being rude or pushy or insensitive. But, on the other hand, if I don�t ask him maybe that would appear as if I didn�t really care. He brought it up, so maybe he wants to talk about it. So I decided to take the risk, however small it seems now.
�Wow. Joe I am sorry to hear you were in an accident. I uhhh�well, do you mind me asking you what happened? I mean, if you don�t want to talk about it, please don�t�if it will make you uncomfortable in any way.�
He looked at me with an expression I couldn�t read exactly. I thought it might have been a look of sadness, peace, or even sincerity. He looked me straight in the eye, and shifted slightly in his seat. He said quietly, �No, it�s OK. It�s a story I would like to tell if you want to hear it.�
I smiled at Joe, put my seat back, and folded my arms across my chest, �Well, I don�t exactly have anywhere to go in the next few hours. Fire away, Mr. Joe Townsend.�
So I heard Joe�s amazing and true story.
I have always loved to fly and have flown all my life; I was just flat-out born to fly. I was a professional airline pilot. I flew as a captain on the MD Super 80, nicknamed the Mad Dog. Before getting hired with Piedmont Airlines, now U.S. Airways, I flew corporate and charter jets out of West Palm Beach, Florida. My piloting experience is in excess of 12,000 flight hours. That equates to over 500 days, 24 hours a day behind the control wheel. WOW, that�s a lot of airplane food to digest. For several years, I had my own Bellanca Citabria, Airbatic backwards, a tandem seated plane with the pilot�s seat in front. Now that was a cool plane! I became proficient at flying upside down and inside out. I used to get a kick out of taking friends up with me, but I made sure they had a sick sack so their lunch would not end up on the back of my neck. One friend did have to use the sick sack so it did come in handy to have them on hand.
My friend Bob Bentz lent me his plane�a white, blue striped, four-seater, Bellanca Turbo Viking�for a trip to Kelley�s cousin�s a beautiful farm in Fitzgerald, Georgia over Thanksgiving weekend in 1996. It was a beautiful plane. Bob had flown his family in the airplane to Venice, Florida to have lunch the week before. For some strange reason, Bob had difficulty getting full power on the plane for the return flight to West Palm Beach. As a result, they left the plane in Venice and rented a car and drove home.
The mechanics in Venice made the repairs, so my girls and I drove the rental car back to Venice the following week for the flight to Georgia. After a preflight inspection, I took it for a test flight and everything on the plane performed normally. Like many pilots, I was always a big one on safety. I would never put my girls in an unsafe plane. We pilots are kind of funny that way when it comes to safety, because we know that you don�t get a second chance. The plane flew normally to Georgia and had full power for the flight and the plane operated well. The weather and conditions were perfect: blue skies.
We had a great time being around family and
friends. We all cooked and ate until our bellies were busting. Isn�t
that what everyone does at Thanksgiving? All of the kids, my girls and
their cousins, played and ran around the cabin. They enjoyed being in a
kid�s paradise�a farm with animals, hay, barns, and cotton fields. We
roasted marshmallows at night
It was, in every sense, the perfect long weekend. Every time I came back on the four-wheeler from a morning of hunting on the farm, which consisted of sitting in a tree-stand waiting for some unsuspecting deer to walk by, Laura came running up ready for a ride. In her sweet, young voice, she merrily cried out, �Daddy, Daddy, will you please take me for a ride?� Sometimes I would even load Kelley, Laura, and Tara on and take a family ride around the farm. There was a trail along the edge of the woods that went by �the bone pile,� an area where they laid the cows to rest after they had died. That fascinated the girls.
It was a snappy, fall morning on December 1st,
1996, when I got into the van with Kelley, my wife, and my two little
angels, Laura Lee and Tara Nicole. We were headed for the local airport.
We had just spent a wonderful, fun-filled Thanksgiving weekend on the
Before leaving the cabin, we ate a quick breakfast,
as there were tons of great leftover desserts to fatten our bellies. We
headed to the airport to fly home to Florida. The girls were excited and
they always loved to fly. I guess the apple doesn�t fall far from the
tree. So I got the plane ready by completing my preflight inspection
Tara, our 18-month-old toddler, sat in a car seat
in the back of the plane with Kelley. Kelley, being a typical Mom, liked
to be back there in case Tara needed her. Laura sat proudly in the
passenger seat beside me. She liked being my copilot and liked the view
from the front. It�s funny, but Laura was always the daredevil anyway.
Laura loved to walk along the
I am sure you have heard the story of Captain Sully on the famous US Airways flight 1549. Captain Sully had to decide in a heartbeat whether he would attempt to make it to Teterboro, New Jersey or try to land in the Hudson River. As you know, he chose the Hudson. To this day, I wish I would have landed on a highway, or in a peanut field, but I turned the plane around to return to the airport, as I believed I had enough altitude to make it to the runway.
Even at full throttle, which is like pressing the accelerator pedal of your car all the way to the floorboard, the plane was dramatically losing power and dangerously losing altitude at a rapid pace. I was lined up to land on Runway 1, which is 5,000 feet long and paved. There was a runway-approach lighting tower sticking up in my path, as I was getting closer to the airport. The throttle was full forward and I was trying to get as much power out of the engine as I could. The engine was coughing and backfiring violently while we continued losing altitude. I tried to squeak out enough altitude by pulling back hard on the yoke to clear the approach tower.
The limited airspeed allowed two choices: either fly into the tower, or hope I had enough airspeed to fly over it. Flying into the light tower would, of course, have been suicidal. I did not have a death wish nor was I a kamikaze pilot. The plane made it over the light tower by inches, but there was not enough airspeed and the nose dropped. There was no more lift, and I thought to myself, "Oh my God, this isn't happening!"