Stories From A Life

Been there. Done that. Writing about it.

Sally Swift

Sally Swift
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
June 14
VP, Repartee
Swift Retorts
sally: a journey, a venture, an expression of feeling, an outburst, a quip, a wisecrack ... me


Editor’s Pick
JANUARY 16, 2009 1:33AM

My Sister's Plane Crash, Miracle in Santa Monica

Rate: 30 Flag
plane on house  LA Times ariel photo of the crash site, firefighters spraying foam during rescue..

"His nose was up, but he was coming down. When I saw that, I said, 'he's in trouble.'" Bill Fulco, crash witness

"The engine was still running, but just as I lost sight of the plane, there was a deadly silence. So I knew it was going down." Sonya, Beebe, crash witness

Statistically, airplane crashes are extremely rare, but when they happen, they're almost always deadly. The USAirways plane crash Thursday, already dubbed "Miracle on the Hudson," was truly miraculous in that all crew and passengers survived.

The people on that plane, already telling their amazing and terrifying stories, and those sure to follow in the coming days, have much reason to rejoice. They lived to share their extraordinary personal tales.

I didn't know anyone on that plane. But we are far too familiar with plane crashes in our family. My sister's husband was killed in a plane crash two and a half years ago.

Incredibly, he and my sister had survived another plane crash together 17 years earlier. We could have called it "Miracle on Somebody's House." The picture up top shows them being rescued from that crash. Here's the story.

The Call
Labor Day weekend, 1989. Husband, Son and I were at the Jersey shore soaking up the last days of summer. Family, friends, the usual crew. Glorious weather. What could be better?

Then I got that call. The one that sucks your breath from your chest, churns your stomach into clay, white-knuckles your hand around the phone. The one that sits you down and then has you up pacing, only to sit again.

You have to speak calmly, ask the right questions, get the important information. You're afraid to hear the answers. Regardless, you've got to be stronger than the person making that call.

In this case the person on the other end of the phone that weekend was my nephew, calling from LA to tell me his mother--my older sister Judy--and her husband Bob had been in a plane crash. A really bad one. Right in front of his eyes. Ghastly. Horrific.

Judy and Bob, both licensed pilots and vintage airplane enthusiasts took off from Santa Monica airport on an equally beautiful day in a friend's World War II P-51 Mustang. You know them from old movies. They have Plexiglas canopies. You can see the pilots inside, one behind the other.

The Crash
My brother-in-law was at the controls, my sister co-piloting in the rear seat. Her son was watching from the ground as he'd done countless times, a little annoyed that day because he was learning to fly and had wanted to go in her place.

They lifted off, began to climb into the clear blue sky and suddenly, like a bolt out of the blue, an actual bolt flew off the engine and into the propeller. Then, adding to the nightmare, birds followed. The plane spiraled out of control as my brother-in-law fought to keep it aloft.

Horribly, gravity prevailed. The plane rolled, rolled again, and crashed on top of a house next to the airport.

Dozens of onlookers rushed to the scene from the airport, including my nephew. An airport fire truck arrived first. And stopped the would-be rescuers in their tracks, pulling them away from the house where the crippled plane lay smoking. A large, deadly spill of airplane fuel was pooling around the perimeter.

The Rescue
The danger was enormous, the risk huge. The house, the plane and it's injured--dead?--occupants were surrounded by a moat of petrol that could explode into a fireball at any moment.

As often happens in such situations, ordinary heroes rise to the occasion. A fellow pilot--a Vietnam veteran--broke free, waded through the foam being sprayed on the fuel and climbed up through the smashed house to the plane. My nephew, galvanized by fear and desperation, followed. Together they managed to pry open part of the canopy.

Can any of us imagine watching our own mother's plane crash, then crawling onto the burning wreckage to attempt a rescue, hoping against hope it's not instead a grisly recovery?

They say mothers will do anything to save their children. I'm here to tell you, children can do the same when the situation's reversed.

As it turned out, the two elderly sisters who owned the house were thankfully, blessedly, not at home -- they were out walking their dog.

The Aftermath
Miraculously, my sister and her husband were alive. Barely. Both unconscious, bleeding, battered. Judy's seat belt had broken and thrown her forward into Bob's seat. His belt held, but that kind of impact is literally more powerful than a speeding locomotive. He was thrown forward into the controls. So his legs were shattered. Along with his pelvis.

Judy's injuries were much worse. All of her ribs were broken. All. Of. Them. Both collarbones too. One shoulder. One arm. Both lungs were punctured. Her liver and spleen damaged. Her face ... no, I can't.

judy rescue
My sister Judy being rescued  from the plane.

And the next day I was on a plane--USAirways--to LA. I didn't even think about the ... what? ... weirdness of that. I just went. Because my sister's life was on the line. Because my nephew and his younger sister were flipped out, unable to cope with the myriad details and decisions of trauma management. And because that's what you do for family.

We have many side stories of healing and dealing, now part of family lore.

One you'll appreciate: we learned after the fact that the genius who repaired Judy's shattered face so brilliantly was Michael Jackson's personal plastic surgeon. (And no, she looks nothing like Jacko). 

Judy and Bob both survived. It took them almost a year to fully recover. Memories faded. Wounds healed. Life went on. Until it didn't.

Irony ... back then I flew out to LA to help Bob and Judy regain their normal lives. Seventeen years later I flew out to help Judy plan Bob's memorial service, and to say good bye.

plane in the air 

The Irony

Those who fly small planes are at much higher risk for accidental death than the average commercial airline passenger. No matter how careful the pilot's planning and maintenance, things can go wrong, especially with vintage planes.

And sadly, there would be no miracles for Bob on his final sortie. Only for those whose lives he saved at the cost of his own.

I'm so very glad everyone survived to tell about the Miracle on the Hudson. In our family, we know only too well how lucky they are.


plane ground
Reviewing the crash aftermath, still spraying foam.

FYI: my OS post on Bob's final flight: Anniversary of a Death, Addition of a Label.

NOTE: THERE ARE COMMENTS BELOW FROM JUDY FERN (NO AVATAR) ... AKA MY SISTER, STAR OF THIS POST. She answers some questions and replies to some comments. Feel free to ask her more and comment directly to her here too. 

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Here's a toast to the host
Of those who love the vastness of the sky,
To a friend we send a message of his brother men who fly.

Sorry for your loss. I can't help but think, though, that it's better to die doing something we love than in bed, doubling as a medical tube planter.
Great story, thanks for shouwing me this post.
Wow Greg...uh ..I mean Sally, (multiple posting reference)
What a horribly thing to have to witness for your nephew. I hope he and the other pilot was commended for their heroic efforts. People would like to think that they would do this or that in emergency situations. The fact is most freeze and do nothing. I've been witness to this phenomena more than once.

Ordinary folks in extraordinary circumstances bring the cream to the top. Your nephew has that in spades.

As far as Bob's death, my thought is that a person who dies doing something they love, is a life to be celebrated as well as mourned. This is the way with motorcycles riders and I've lost some wonderful people over the years. Everyone on my family less my mother owns a bike. I'm sure it is the same experience with the brother/sisterhood of pilots.
Sally, what a story. Some may wonder why Bob and other brave souls would ever climb back into a plane after such an experience. I don’t thank anyone’s ever explained it better than John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air. . . .
Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
Wow, some story, Sally. You handled the telling beautifully.
The photos are amazing---I vaguely recollect this occurring.
Harrowing, relevent, beautifully told.

My brother flies a small plane and has had a couple of close calls. I avoid them when possible, but as I travel alot, not always possible if I want to get to and from a remote place. Oh well, we have to keep doing what we love to do, as your late brother-in-law showed.
Strange coincidence, isn't it, that the U.S. Airways pilot was a former fighter pilot and a 40-year veteran? (tongue firmly in cheek)

According to the reports, his quick decision to turn back, and again to ditch in the river instead of trying to make an emergency landing at Newark, saved everyone on that aircraft.

I'd not be nervous at all on my next flight if I knew he was the pilot.

I vaguely recall you mentioning your B-I-L's fatal flight once before. So sorry for your loss, and as was already said, at least he went doing something he loved and he gave his life to save others.

Wow, that's really crazy. Two crashes in a family. Does she still fly?
My father was killed in a plane crash 5 years ago. He was flying his plane to pick up a sick child and take him to L.A. He flew for Angle Flight after he retired from Delta, luckily he want down when he was alone. No one is ever ready for that phone call, and I think that anyone who has a pilot in the family jumps when the phone rings when they are away flying. Pilots are a special breed of people and you are a better person for knowing one. Thanks for the great post. Take care.
What a dangerous hobby... dangerous for them AND everyone around them. Why can't they take up something safer like amateur fireworks? If your relatives had killed those two elderly sisters, I'd bet you they would have been back up in the air as soon as they were fit to fly again.
As a former flight attendant, I detest small planes and will avoid them at all costs. The bigger the aircraft the better the chances of surviving an emergency.

Your story is unbelievable, Sally and I am so sorry for your loss. Your sister went through and survived something most of us cannot begin to imagine.

Thanks so much for sharing this well told piece of your family history.

This and the "near crash" into the Hudson gives a whole new meaning to "fear of fying."

It will give us all more to think about, for sure, whenever we fly and a new appreciation for the experience and judgment of every pilot who navigates us through the skies.
Jon, what lovely toast, thank you. And this, "I can't help but think, though, that it's better to die doing something we love than in bed, doubling as a medical tube planter." is Exactly how Bob felt.

Michael, you get it too. "As far as Bob's death, my thought is that a person who dies doing something they love, is a life to be celebrated as well as mourned." There's a link in this post to one I wrote here about Bob's final flight and his memorial, which was, as he expressly wanted, a celebration of his life.

Tom, I so love that poem. And Bob truly loved to fly. Thank you.

Lea, I too travel frequently and have done so in all manner of aircraft. Give me a great big honkin Airbus, or those in the know would tell you, a Boeing 747.

Bill, Bob's vast experience (he was also an instructor) saved his and Judy's lives the first time and saved those on the ground the last. With all the airlines are cutting back, I'll pay for luggage as long as it means they keep the best pilots.

David, Judy stopped flying for a while, but this past summer, around the 2nd anniversary of Bob's death, she started flying again.

Dea-dog, I'm so sorry you lost your father that way. These stories must be hard for you, but your courage and understanding are very clear when you say, "Pilots are a special breed of people and you are a better person for knowing one."

My Flyer, wow, so much anger. And cruelty.

Cathy, you know better than I how much the flight attendants helped keep people safe, and possibly alive, on the recent 'Miracle on the Hudson.' See my comment to Lea about big planes.
Thanks for creating this picture for us. The writing, the pictures, the grief. Wow.
Sally, what an amazing, incredible and ultimately tragic story. Wow, I wonder how your sister is coping with such a traumatic event in her life and the loss of her husband. These pictures are surreal. And never to minimize the death of another, but I tend to agree with Jon...the medical tube planter is so not attractive but living your life's passions is.

One more thing: Yesterday I heard a statistic that 95% of people survive plane crashes, so I'm not sure which one is correct.
Compelling stories, this one and the one from Summer. I, too, love to fly; and I, too, am afraid to fly. It's an interesting conundrum.
Steve and Moana and Maddie, I meant to say thanks for reading and commenting and not minding my Blog Luv mail (we're not saying Blog Whore anymore, why are people forgetting that?)

Seattle, thank you too, your comment says it all. Except the courage too.

Mary, I have to look up statistics again, I got mine very late last night. I think people survive emergency landings, but crashes, not so much, usually due to fire. Enough on that, k.

ConnieM, you're got a real conundrum but probably shared by most, if they were honest. We are earthbound creatures after all.
And thanks a lot, Mary! Your pelican trumped my mustang on the cover! heh
Went back and read your earlier post about Bob, and your sister's crash landing into widowhood. Exquisitely written and so poignant. Parts that got me the most: the "missing man" formation, and the description of a spouse as one's "true north" (so very true).

Quite a family you come from (why am I not surprised?).
Laurel, compliments on my writing mean so much more coming from writers I really admire, like you, so thank you. Really. As to our family, you are so right, this is the tip of the iceberg....
Wow, Sally, what a story. i think I held my breath through the whole thing.

i am supposed to be working but this was in front of me ;-)
UK, you're such a kind person, thank you, and amen to your comment.. for you too.

Lauren, go back to work! Oh no, after your strong resolve, I don't want to be responsible for no dinner tonight. :)

Roger, my sentiments exactly.

LuluandPhoebe, my husband called me to the TV and I just stood there, toothbrush in one hand, toothpaste in the other, looking at the wrecked plane and listening to the people tell their stories. It was something. My sister's got amazing strength, we're very close and I'm very proud of her.
David cooks most nights sally. He's good at the short order stuff; I am more the fancy special occasion chef. And I am doing mindless excel spreadsheets detailing what units had their concrete ground and other fascinating stuff. Wouldn't you like to know who got a new foam roof and who didn't? Salacious stuff!
Ooooo.... foam..... Well, wait. Naa, nevermind. ;)
I'm sooooo sorry to read this...He indeed died in the most heroic and selfless way...

(rated) with sympathy
Sally: I posted a bunch of comments last night late, around 3 am and I am finding that a lot of them just disappeared into thin air. I have no idea what I did.

But I do want you to know that this and the later loss of your bro in law is something that most of us will never have to experience, so I can not say that I know how you feel, because I simply have no frame of reference. I can say that you and your sister have both shown remarkable courage in the face of great tragedy.

And I do hope that the healing that time alone brings will continue to carry both of you to better places and brighter future days.

God bless,

Greg, thank you, I hope you know I shared this on your post because this first one was the miracle. At least my sister has that. And, as she said in the post I linked above, she always knew it was a risk. She's really an amazingly strong woman.

Monte, how kind of you to send such heartfelt wishes, even in the midst of your own troubles. But that's the thing, many people are going through things for which none of us has a frame of reference. I thought to share my sister's stories because we know what it's like to witness a miracle come from a plane crash. And we know the pride that comes from mourning, and celebrating a life sacrificed for the good of others. My sister's a fighter, like you, like Greg and Lauren, like so many here. We all fight in our own way to be strong for ourselves and each other. So, bless you too, Monte.
you paint a picture so beautifully. it is so interesting, how current events or personal encounters can bring the past in to such vivid vibrant focus, as if it all was happening a few days ago or now. God, the recovery from that first crash? i can't even imagine it. your nephew is exceptional. i'd love him in my corner any time. I'm with whomever said that dying while doing what you love is as good as it gets, not for the living, of course. very tough on the living. always.

i always wanted to fly small planes. took lessons, made friends with a fire captain/pilot, had things all budgeted and planned out. then my macho brother, cop and trainer for SWAT in san diego, sat me down -- he is not a caring guy usually -- and lectured me, said he had cleaned up after so many kinds of accidents but small plane crashes? he said no one ever walks away. i could see that he's seen this recently. i listened. later on, i wanted to do it anyway, but i didnt' have the money anymore. sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do, to be yourself.
I hope this doesn't go on forever, but I had to write. I'm Judy, Sally's sister, and as always she's right on the money. Just to ease some minds, neither of us remembers the impact. We knew we were in trouble, we knew Air Traffic Control had cleared the airspace for us, we both remember up to a point in the air, and then from a point on the ground. Probably a space of maybe 5 seconds. But the mind is a wonderful thing: it wipes out the most horrifying memories so as to keep us sane. But for the record, we do remember the following year. I was a morphine junkie while in the hospital, which my children found highly amusing. Try coughing, sneezing, getting up from bed or a chair with a zillion broken ribs. On second thought, don't. I wouldn't wish that on anyone. And we have pictures of Bob in the hospital bed that Sally had put into the living room with his leg in the air, but always smiling. But enough rambling. I would like to address some of the comments that came in after Sally's post. And if I sound pissed off, I am. And if I sound grateful, I am that, too.

Jon, Michael, Bill S., you'd be astonished at the number of pilot buddies I've lost -- and I've only been flying for 20+ years. I once said those exact words to Bob, about dying doing what one loves. His retort: Yeah, but he didn't want to do it right now!

David, as Sally said, I took about a year off from flying, but I love knowing how to do something that only a special minority knows how to do, so I'm back in the air. Besides, it's fun. Besides, my visitors get the privilege of seeing LA from a better vantage point than the average tourist.

Dea, so sorry about your Dad. Sadly, I've known other Angel Flight pilots who have met the same fate. It's doubly sad, the loss of the person and that the person was doing something so selfless.

Mary, I am coping because I have no options. I have written several pieces on widowhood which Sally posted on her blog. Rather than go into it here, I invite you to go to and find them there. And lots of other good stuff.

Laurel/n, nice words. The "Missing Man" has been choking me up for 20+ years.

UK, thanks. I'll take it.

Chicago Guy (Obama II?), that's pretty much what we said in that moment right before the part where we stopped remembering. It says it all.

My Flyer, next time keep your thoughts to yourself. The odds of you getting hit by a car while crossing the street are far greater than dying in an airplane crash. But for you I have a suggestion: go out and crash an airplane and then come back and tell us all about it.

Yesterday's near tragedy: that pilot should get awards and recognition and a parade and, and, and...... Not only is he a very experienced pilot, his training as a glider pilot is presumably how he cleverly guided the airplane to it's destination with no engines.

I was right -- this is long. Sorry, but Sally and all of you opened a dam of memories. I have not commented on Sally's comments. She has hers, I have mine. And she knows you all better. But I do thank Sally and admire her total recall and appreciate her bringing back my 15 minutes. No, it wasn't fun, but I'm here to tell the tale. We are a very small society, we plane crash survivors. May it ever be thus.
One more time: Sally suggested I write to tell you about our second date, the first time I saw the poem sent in by Tom Cordle. And Tom, please forgive me for overlooking you in my previous post.

I began touching slipping the surly bonds of earth and touching the face of God in a Piper Cherokee (my favorite)(4 seats) on our way to Lake Arrowhead for lunch. I had sort of finagled Bob to take me flying, so he left his F4U-7 Corsair in the hangar, borrowed a civilized airplane and up we went. We got to Arrowhead and cabbed into town for lunch. It was only our second date, so it was still in the compliment and question stage, the usual I-don't-really-know-you--yet stage. Since airplanes were his life that's where the conversation went, even though I had very little idea of what he was talking about.

He reached for his wallet and extracted a dirty, old, well worn, folded piece of paper. He opened it as though it was made of papyrus and reverently gave it to me to read. It was THE poem. The one that made pilots get misty-eyed. When I finished reading, his face had a half-smile and we agreed that it was beautiful. So thanks again, Tom. That piece of writing has a great deal of meaning and memories for me.

The punch line is that he let me fly home! Of course this airplane had dual controls, but he let me think I was flying. I think that was the last time he let me think I was flying. Once I became an experienced pilot, he morphed into a most annoying back-seat pilot; he flew the airplane with his mouth!! But boy, did we have fun. So thanks, Tom, one more time.
wow, amazing story! thanks for sharing it, painful as it must be.
Judy, I first became acquainted with that poem back in high school, and it touched me deeply, tho I wasn't sure why exactly. I've flown a lot as a passenger, but certainly never as a pilot. But I think I understand the feeling at least a little; there are times when I'm playing music and I am lifted from my earthly bonds, and I soar on silvery wings into some magic place that can't be explained -- only experienced.
Tom I agree. Certain music can take me right out of myself just like that poem - - and flying.
Wow... Amazing that your sister and brother-in-law survived that crash! I'm glad for your sister's sake that she didn't end up looking like Michael Jackson! Too heavy a penance, after surviving something like that. Your poor nephew--I'm sure he'll never forget what he saw that day.

(Although I'm glad for their sakes they were not at home at the time, I do feel rather sorry for their sisters who came back to find an airplane embedded in the house that had been normal when they stepped out to walk the dogs!)
Sally & Judy, thank you for sharing this story with us.

I hate planes. Hate them with a passion. Would be happy never to fly again. I have no conundrums, as Connie does--I purely hate them.

I have always loved that poem, though. My dad loved flying, according to my mom, and that poem helps me to understand why.
Sally and Judy, Thanks for educating, clarifying and for being willing to revisit that painful event. There's nothing like a personal account to bring a topic into the mind and heart. You've done that for me. Thank goodness you have each other as sisters. My best to you both and to the nephew who has really responded as a hero-son in his own right. My condolences to you all.
Shiral, we never met the sisters who lived in the house. Technically we turned the garage into toothpicks but the rest of the house was pretty much intact -- and fortunately didn't blow up. When interviewed on TV, one sister said, "That was a helluva thing to come home to." No kidding.
Seattle, I've gone beyond the maudlin and am into remembering, laughing about it all, and occasionally looking through the album I created. Keeps me grounded (oh, ha ha). And you're right: I caught the brass ring with Sally.
Aw. I feel all humble now. Allow me to say this in response to Judy: Ditto!
Your life is one incredible story after another. Or, haven't you noticed? Amazing story, Sally. Just amazing.