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Passenger Dennis King figured the odds of survival were slim as a sputtering light plane being flown by his friend plummeted toward a Columbus housing addition.
The next thing the 60-year-old King knew, he was in someone’s backyard, struggling in a crumpled cockpit, surrounded by flames, “then throwing myself out the doorway like a torpedo and rolling on the ground to put out the flames on my back and legs.”
“I was in the right-hand seat, scrunched up. The fuselage was bent. I’m a little heavier than I should be, and I couldn’t find the buckle to the seat-belt. I thought to myself, ‘I am going to have to sit here and burn,’” King said.
A few minutes earlier he had accepted a spur-of-the-moment request to go up with Gerald Clayton in the 81-year-old pilot’s experimental plane. Both men were amateur aircraft enthusiasts who kept their light planes in adjacent hangars at Columbus Municipal Airport.
But this ill-fated flight July 25 ended with Clayton suffering injuries that later proved fatal, the Glastar GS-1 aircraft destroying a Columbus couple’s home near the airport and King suffering burns that required two skin-graft surgeries.
“I was just glad I got out of the thing,” King said after lunch at his home Wednesday. “When I looked back at the wreckage, I was surprised I got out. I almost gave up at one point. But then an adrenaline rush hit, and I had more strength than usual. Somehow I managed to get the seat-belt loose and escape.”
After 22 days in Wishard Memorial Hospital in Indianapolis, a mending King returned to his ranch-style home in Columbus on Friday. He is still recovering from burns, broken ribs and other injuries.
Clayton died from his severe injuries three weeks ago.
Lucky to survive
King counts himself lucky.
“All along the doctors were assuring me that I’d heal. They were optimistic it wouldn’t take me that long,” King said. “Psychologically, I’ve been in a good space all along.”
Four weeks after the crash, King talked in calm, measured tones about the incident. He remembers seconds before the crash hurtling toward a house at 2223 Broadmoor Lane and thinking people in planes that hit houses don’t usually survive. Then, he remembers hoping no one was at home, followed by the impact, a fuel leak soaking his body and clothes with fuel and lots of flames.
“I remember getting out, some people around me with blankets. I was covered in
gasoline. I ripped my shirt off. I remember laying on my back and finally using my hands to put out the flames on my short pants. The burns were worse on my back and second worse on my left arm, elbow area,” he said.
“Right now, I’m restricted to my house. I can’t get out too much except to go back to (the hospital) to have my wounds checked and cleaned. My torso is bandaged, and one particular area on my back is burned all way down to the fat. It’s still moist and drains a lot. I had a tough couple of days right after the second (skin-graft) operation. I had feeding tubes in me, and they were squirting nutritional fluid into me I got sick from,” he said.
Hopes to apologize
King said he hasn’t talked with Hiroko Nakao, a woman who was inside the Broadmoor Lane house when the plane hit, but he is glad she escaped
“I would like to apologize for the property damage and tell her that in a way I believe the house might have saved my life. It was acting as a cushion, slowing us down gradually. I’d like to talk to her and tell her that I’m very, very glad that she didn’t get hurt.”
King said he also misses his friend, Clayton, and remembers the day the pilot died at Wishard. The two men had met at the Columbus airport 18 months before the crash and had started a friendship built around aviation.
“I remember he (Clayton) was in a room very close to mine. All of a sudden there was a lot of activity in his room, and I knew something was
going on, that they were trying to save him. When he did pass away, the nurses came and told me. I went into his room and paid my respects,” King said.
King said he knew Clayton’s plane had undergone a series of repairs but added he had no reservations about climbing aboard as a passenger with his friend.
“I actually went to the airport to fly my own airplane,” King said. “I had just opened my hangar door when (Clayton) walked over and told me he was wanting to make a test flight. I think his wife wanted someone to go up with him, I guess because of his age and the fact he hadn’t flown in a while.
“I trust him, and I knew he had been working on the engine. I took it as a chance to fly in a type of plane that I had never been in before,” he said.
King said he knew that Clayton’s Glastar GS-1 plane had gone through recent engine troubles due to a faulty heat sensor, but he was certain repairs had been made successfully. Today, King says he’s convinced the crash was caused by something else. He remembers hearing the engine racing right before the crash, and the propeller seemed to be out of control or not in sync with the engine.
“My sense was the propeller was not getting power from the engine. It felt to me like something broke loose where the propeller was free-wheeling,” King said. “I’m sure I was panicking. A lot of things were going through my mind. I thought this is probably it.”
Federal investigators haven’t yet ruled on what caused the crash.
One person glad to learn that King is now at home and on the mend was 71-year-old Bill Melvin, who lives in the crash neighborhood. Melvin was the first person to help King at the crash site a few seconds after the accident last month.
“I could see his back was badly burned, and there was blood coming from a cut on his head,” Melvin said. “Someone put damp towels on his back to cool the skin. It’s fantastic news that he’s out of the hospital.”
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