"The bad news is time flies. The good news is you are the pilot." -Michael Altshuler
It was a beautiful, sunny, fall afternoon. I could almost smell the crisp leaves in the light, cool wind breezing in from Canada. I walked on to yet another plane to fly to West Palm Beach. My name is Shawn Doyle, and I am a road warrior. I travel so frequently that I am often upgraded to first class.
Traveling first class has its advantages, and I have met some really interesting people in the seats next to me.
On this particular flight, the man sitting in the inside seat next to me boarded after I did. As he approached, he pointed to his seat and said, "Hello there. Sorry to bother you. I am sitting in that seat." He smiled warmly. I stood up and moved so he could slide in. He was tall and thin with brown hair that turned slightly gray at the temples.
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"
"Hey there. I'm Joe Townsend. Nice to meet you," he said it in a quiet, soft voice while flashing me a thousand-watt smile. He shook my hand firmly. I realized he had a way about him that I can't describe exactly—a quality, a warmth, a spark. Some would call it personality or likeability. The French would call it je ne sais quoi, which literally means, "I don't know." Joe had an indescribable quality about him that I couldn't quite put my finger on, but it made me want to be friends with him. "Nice to meet you, Joe. I'm Shawn Doyle."
We both settled back in our seats and waited for the pre-flight announcements to end so that we could take off. As soon as we were cleared for takeoff, the plane roared smoothly down the runway, lifted into the sky, and headed south into the sunset.
"So, Joe, where are you headed today?" I asked.
"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 twenty years old. That is really cool. So a speaker, huh? Wow. So do you have any books out?"
"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 by 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 backward, 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 on 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 around the fire. Tara, our toddler, was only 18 months old so she was excited about everything that weekend. The girls had been able to see a ten-day-old calf, and they loved petting its soft muzzle. Laura was excited because she got to pick raw cotton and had stuffed her cute little blue-jean pockets with it to show to her friends during show-and-tell at school.
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 farm.
Joe pulled his wallet out and showed me a picture of his cute, little girls. They were wearing matching sundresses made of bright, orange-yellow and white fabric.
I don't know where they got them, but my wife Kelley had a dress in matching the fabric. Laura Lee, the four-year-old, was a beautiful blond with blue eyes, and Tara was her sister's opposite with brown hair and brown eyes. Laura resembles Kelley when she was that age, and Tara was the spitting image of me except that she was a much prettier child.
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"t fall far from the tree. So I got the plane ready by completing my preflight inspection with draining the two wing fuel sumps, checking topped off fuel tanks, draining the engine fuel sump and checking the oil level. I was very focused on getting everything prepared. I hopped into the cockpit to arrange my aeronautical charts, check out my flight plan as the girls put in their bags and got settled in. The girls were laughing and giggling and full of energy. I was also a little concerned about the weather" there was a dark gray cold front coming in from the northwest. It looked like a moody Andrew Wyeth painting, a blue-gray wash slashing across the sky with jutting, muscular clouds. The south was clear with bright, Renoir-blue skies all the way to Florida. We were headed south towards Florida, and I knew that we could be off the ground and on our way before the weather arrived.
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 co-pilot and liked the view from the front. It's funny, but Laura was always the daredevil anyway. Laura loved to walk along the second-level railing of the back deck of our house while I held her hand and she balanced like a skilled gymnast on a balance beam. She was never afraid.
We took off from the Fitzgerald Airport and lifted off the runway with ease as I had done hundreds, no, many thousands of times before. How routine is take off in a small plane? When I had done it so many times before, it was as routine as brushing my teeth. I had it down.
Very quickly into the flight, I began to lose power and I decided to turn back to the airport in Fitzgerald. It was a decision that would change my life, and the lives of others, forever.
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 to the light tower by inches, but there was not enough airspeed and the nose dropped. There was no more left, and I thought to myself, "Oh my God, this isn't happening!"