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From the wreckage: Columbus plane crash, Passenger healing from injuries


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Madeline Hodek | The Republic  Lt. Matt Myers, left, speaks with detective Chris Couch Sunday, July 28 as the remains of the plane from the Thursday morning plane crash is removed from the wreckage.
Madeline Hodek | The Republic Lt. Matt Myers, left, speaks with detective Chris Couch Sunday, July 28 as the remains of the plane from the Thursday morning plane crash is removed from the wreckage.

Dennis King, a 60-year-old passenger in the aircraft that demolished a Columbus house in July, recently sold this light plane to a friend. King -- an amateur pilot -- said he's uncertain if he will ever fly again.
Dennis King, a 60-year-old passenger in the aircraft that demolished a Columbus house in July, recently sold this light plane to a friend. King -- an amateur pilot -- said he's uncertain if he will ever fly again.


Dennis King, the surviving passenger in a light plane that crashed into a house in Columbus three months ago, said he isn’t sure if he’ll ever fly again.

“I still haven’t made that decision,” said the 60-year-old, who was along for the ride July 25 when an experimental plane owned and piloted by 81-year-old Gerald Clayton experienced mechanical problems, crashed, caught fire and destroyed a house at 2223 Broadmoor Lane.

Clayton later died, but King is on the mend after a series of skin graft surgeries and 100 days in and out of an Indianapolis burn center and assorted doctors’ offices.

“I consider myself very lucky,” King said in an interview last week. “When I have to visit the burn center (at Wishard Memorial Hospital), you see a lot of other people in the waiting area. Quite a few of them are a lot worse off than me.

“I have always tried to keep a positive outlook in life,” he added. “I can always find someone who’s fatter than me or shorter than me. I saw a guy up there last week with the left side of his head burned, his ear gone. But he was still laughing and joking with the nurses.”

King’s recovery has rallied fellow amateur pilots and friends to his side.

“He had a difficult time in the hospital at first,” said Bill Ellison, a 66-year-old friend who shares a passion for flight and motorcycles with King. “Initially, his burns were so deep, they couldn’t complete the skin grafts. He had to go through that ordeal twice instead of just once, and that was hard.”

Ellison, a consultant for Cummins who was in Hawaii when the crash occurred, said he returned to the U.S. mainland and made it to King’s bedside two days after the accident.

“He’s doing great now,” Ellison said. “I think he’ll fly again, and I will fly with him. You know, your life can end at any time. And you have to keep doing the things you love.”

‘Nervous pilot’

King describes himself as “a nervous pilot” who uses that anxiety to focus on every detail of a flight and stay safe. In the weeks after the crash, though, King started asking himself if he’d suddenly get too jittery in the air to concentrate on being a good pilot.

“I’m not quite sure how I feel,” King said. “Recently, though, in the last few weeks I’m starting to feel like I might fly my plane again.”

For the past 14 weeks, King has spent his days either in the hospital or driving between his home in Columbus and doctors’ office in Indianapolis for treatment.

His torso was heavily bandaged for several weeks after skin graft surgery. One particular area of his left side was burned all way down to the fat, he said, and that part of his body took the longest to heal.

“Those areas were still wet and subject to possible infection,” he said.

King, who is single, said neighbors and relatives helped him immensely during the period of time he was either hospitalized or restricted to bed rest at home.

“Now, I’m fine. I’m doing everything I did before the accident. The burns aren’t bothering me hardly at all. I’ve regained my flexibility,” he said.

As a precaution, King must wear special garments on his torso and thighs to promote healing and reduce the possibility of heavy scars. Basically, he wears a tight-fitting “pressure vest” that protects a large part of his back and left arm, and he wears snug athletic compression pants to lessen scarring on his legs (back and front).

Building planes

Ellison describes King as an excellent engineer and tinkerer who loves building and maintaining an airplane even more than flying it.

“He is a methodical engineer,” Ellison said of his friend. “The first plane he ever built — a Kitfox Model IV light plane (cherry red) — won a craftsmanship award at a national convention.”

King said he sold that small plane last month to a “friend of a friend who kept bugging me to buy it. I gave him a price I thought would discourage him, but he took me up on it.”

The amateur pilot, however, said he has no intention of selling his newest aircraft — a Velocity 173RG that he was in the final stages of testing when the crash occurred in Clayton’s plane. The Velocity can reach speeds up to 200 miles an hour. King started building that plane in 1996 but didn’t take his first flight in it until September of last year.

One of King’s worries after the crash was that there would be a backlash against amateur pilots who build and fly their own planes, he said. He’s glad that hasn’t been the case in Columbus.

“I was so glad no one was hurt on the ground,” King said. “As we came in toward that house, just before we hit it, I was assuming (Clayton) and I would be killed instantly. But I remember thinking, ‘I sure hope no one is in that house.’ When I learned a woman had been inside but she didn’t get hurt, I was so happy, almost giddy,” King recalled. “I was laughing and joking with the ambulance attendants as they drove me to the hospital.”

In more recent weeks, King said he has driven past the crash site and noticed the damaged house has been torn down, leaving a vacant lot. Nearby, no other homes show visible scars of the crash.

“It’s surprising that none of the other homes were really damaged,” he said. “Driving through there, you’d never guess anything happened.”

Doctors happy

At this point, King said, his doctors are pleased with how well his burns have healed, and he doesn’t have to return to the burn center for three months.

Before Christmas, though, he’ll undergo minor surgery on a swelling or hernia on the side of his chest. King said he expects to spend two or three days in the hospital for that procedure, which he describes as “a piece of cake” compared with his previous ordeal.

Overall, King said he is thankful for his survival and upbeat about how quickly his health is improving.

“I’m glad I don’t have any burns on my face,” he added. “That way I don’t have to answer so many questions when I go out in public. All my burns are in areas I can cover with clothing.”

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