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Editor’s Note & Content Advisory: This article contains an eyewitness account of a double fatal accident involving a student and instructor aboard a PA28 in Bealeton, VA in June 2000. Some may find the descriptions difficult to read.

We are pleased to offer an audio version of this article narrated by renowned airshow announcer and host of the I Learned About Flying From That (I.L.A.F.F.T.) Podcast, Mr. Rob Reider.

Many pilots are born. Some are forged. This is my aviator life.

Golf is a Waste of a Perfectly Good Walk

At 36, I was never into airplanes. I’d never been to the local airport, never seen an air show, and certainly was oblivious to the existence of any sizable General Aviation presence around me. I was never the little boy who looked to the sky at the sound of an engine.

Only once had I ever been in a small airplane, a Cessna owned by a cousin of mine back in the 80’s.  It was red and white with a buckskin interior. We flew to the Eastern Shore of Maryland to look at a boat.  We ate lunch and then flew home.

On that day, all I noted was that he had two planes in his hangar.  One plane had two propellers and wings underneath and one had only one propeller and wings on the roof.  The latter, a Cessna, was the one we flew; my first small airplane ride.  It was, in all, a wonderful experience, but I was left with so many questions.  My cousin periodically called out the license number on the radio; Zebra Nutmeg or something like that.  All I remember was being completely overwhelmed by all the round gauges and the idea that somehow a pilot is able to assemble whatever they see on them into a straight and level flight to a far-off place.  Late in the afternoon on a beautifully smooth and sunny day, he somehow found the grass field where we left and slid across the ground to a safe stop.

flight instruments

I didn’t love aviation and all I remember on my first flight was being completely overwhelmed by all the round gauges.

In the late 90’s, I bought the family business from my dad at his retirement. As a struggling golfer and new business owner, I bought a package deal at a local golf course south of our main territory where our company logo was advertised on a tee box.  With that, we got 10 free rounds of golf.  I thought that an increase in name recognition could drive up sales in that region, but I never golfed there until I was about to lose my free rounds.

golf course

Aerial image of the crash site.

So, on June 23, 2000, I took my best friend, my banker, and a buddy of his, to make up a foursome to burn off some of those free rounds of golf.

We had a late morning tee time. It was blistering hot by midday with a blue sky and roasting sun. The course was busy, and the pace was slow. For me, it was a typical wild slice off the tee kind of day. We moved our carts to the fairway and waited for the group ahead of us to leave the green. Suddenly, we heard the distinct sound of an engine closing in on us.

The sound of the engine got so loud that we frantically looked around for fear that we were about to get hit by something. We spotted a small airplane lumbering up from the right corner of a small grove of pine trees shielding the back of the berm beyond the green in front of us.

The Incalculable

Time suddenly seemed to slow to a crawl. We could see the top of the plane and the tip of the tail through the gaps in the treetops. Then, the windshield, the wings, and a whine of the engine, there was a ‘CRACK’ and the plane shuttered. The nose rose sharply, then sank. ‘CRACK’ ‘CRACK’ ‘CRACK’ the small plane began to shear off the tops of the trees as the nose pitched further and further down.

One final ‘CRACK’ and the right wing rose to vertical.  The plane did a pirouette about 10 feet from the top of the last unyielding trunk, inverted, disappeared, and crashed onto its roof just behind the berm of our green.

The Onset

The first thing that shocked my senses was that the physical crash was almost inaudible. No boom, no breaking glass, not much more than the sound of a mid-speed fender bender.

We immediately raced to the scene in our golf carts. One of the victims had clearly perished and was on the other side of the plane from me. The guy on my side was a heavily set man who had been partially ejected through the passenger side window and was resting on his stomach with his arms out in front of him and his eyes open, seemingly alert.  His back was clearly broken at his hips, as his waist had an unnatural 45-degree sideways bend to it.

We both heard him plead in a panicked yet muffled tone, “Please God, get me out.”

“We’re going to get you out dude; just hang on,” Mike said.

My best friend, Mike, told me to try and get the door open and he’d go find a log to prop the wing up. So, I crawled under the wing on my hands and knees only to be met with intense heat and cold blue gasoline pouring down the back of my neck into my shorts and filling my shoes from what I assumed was a vent in the wing. Blue gasoline?  I’d never heard of it.

I couldn’t remember much about that Cessna, a clearly a different kind of airplane, but finding what I thought was the door handle above me and inside the window, I tried to lift the wing (the tip of which was sagging below the bottom of the door) by straightening my knees while hunched over.  My idea was, even though this victim was badly broken up, bent 45 degrees at the hips, I might save him if I could get the door open far enough to get him straight out through the window.

I just couldn’t figure out how to lift high enough with my knees and pull down on the door lever far enough to get the door to pop loose. I started screaming for help from another bystander, presumably one of the golfers who was ahead of us on the green.  Out from under the wing, all I could assemble for words was, “Get the f***over here and help me!”  From 50 feet away, he couldn’t hear me. He was completely unplugged, running around in circles, flapping his arms like a chicken, screaming “Oh my God, this is so bad, this is so bad, this is so bad!”

I caught a fleeting glimpse of Mike through the broken windshield.  He was dragging a large pine log which was falling apart as he ambled back towards me.

“Holy S*#%!!  You gotta come now Thump, or you’re never gonna make it! Look up!  Look up!” he screamed at me.

By now, I was crouching in a visible pool of blue fuel, the hue rising between the blades of grass around me.  I’ll never know what Mike was looking at, but I looked out from under the wing to the rear of the plane and saw what looked like a thin ribbon of heat mirage rising fast and straight from somewhere in the tail.

I looked down into this man’s hazel eyes again. They seemed so far away now.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

I ran.

Confused Preservation


The accident made headline news locally.

I couldn’t run far.  I was way too invested in my plan and in saving that pilot.  At 40 yards, my run slowed to a quick walk and I turned back to assess the threat.  I was still desperate for any kind of help and just a little more time.  All I needed was time.

As I turned back, a low tone roar overtook the sound of the rustling trees, and a blue translucent bulbous mass swept the inside of the plane from the rear.  It was on fire.  We all froze.

The sights, sounds, and smells will forever be carved in my brain.  Witnessing someone burn to death is exactly what you might imagine it to be, and that moment has never left me.  As it was consumed, the plane began to blow silently away.  The aluminum charred with the heat and rose into the wind like burning paper.  In what seemed like an instant, the plane was gone, leaving behind the frame, random parts, and the now charred, featureless, and lifeless bodies of the occupants bloated and disfigured from the heat.  Then…


The breeze and the birds resumed.  I don’t remember much about what was said after that.  I was soaked and aimlessly walked around for a while to dry out before returning to my car.  The four of us walked without talking, from one hole to the next, until we circled back to the clubhouse.  I don’t remember sirens, just silence.  Investigators were now on the scene.

[NTSB final report.]

Into the Aftermath

The nightmares started almost immediately, every single night, for months.  At first, they were undefined.  I’d jolt out of my sleep by the sound of the crash, or the sound of the engine so close by, or Mike screaming: ‘You gotta come now Thump or you’re never gonna make it! Look up!  Look up!’ Eventually those faded, and I was left with one split second in time; the moment I looked up through the hole in the windshield to see that guy running in circles and flapping his arms like a chicken screaming ‘Oh my God, this is so bad!  This is so bad!  This is so bad!’

I decided that I needed to take control.  I needed answers.  So, I bought a Microsoft Flight Simulator, a yoke, pedals and a throttle quadrant at the mall in Manassas with the idea that if I could somehow recreate the accident, I could understand it.  I set the crude system weather parameters, moved the airplane to the correct airport, and tried repeatedly for weeks to recreate the crash.  I couldn’t.  Two dimensional trees on a nebulous green background couldn’t show me what I needed to see.

On the evening of the first anniversary of the crash, I drove out to the golf course, parked the car in the parking lot, and walked back to the crash site. It was now a barren triangle of dirt, weeds, and what looked like remnants of dried flowers. But still, no answers.

So, in desperation and frustration I shared my story with an attorney buddy of mine who also happened to be a pilot, and he turned the tide in a sentence: “You need to go see Tom Adams at Dulles Aviation in Manassas.  He’s the chief pilot.  Explain all this to him.  I’m pretty sure he can give you the answer you’re looking for.”

The Time had Come.

That phone call took me about 6 weeks to make.  Was I nuts?  Would this man THINK I was nuts?  But when my attorney friend followed up to see if I’d made the call, I knew I was trapped.  As a lawyer, he never asked a question for which he didn’t already have the answer.  They had talked.  I had no choice but to make the call.  Mr. Adams was kind and accommodating and we agreed to a 10:30 am meeting a few days later.

In the cubicle with his name on the wall, I was greeted by a large man with thick glasses, an infectious smile, and a snow white curly mop of hair.  At that point, it became impossible not to tell him the whole story.  His slow and thoughtful nod just kept drawing out every detail.

“Yeah, that was a huge local tragedy for our aviation community.  Quite a few people around here knew them both… oh, and it’s a windscreen, not a windshield, ok?”

“Sorry, I didn’t know,” I sheepishly responded.

Tom leaned back in his chair away from his desk and laced his fingers behind his head, looking at me over those coke bottle lenses.

“Well, I know you didn’t know, and that’s part of the problem.  You see, Charlie, that accident was perfectly explainable as a series of bad decisions which formed a series of events leading up to the crash.  The problem is, you don’t know anything about grass runways, short field takeoffs, brake horsepower, density altitude, weight and balance, or any of the other factors that went into what led up to what you witnessed. I get what you’re looking for.  Closure.  The way I see it, you can get up from that chair and go see a psychiatrist who, for $200 a month, will tell you month after month that you did everything you could.  Or, you could give me $250 and go to a 10-week ground school where you will learn all the terms and aerodynamics, and come to an understanding why, as sad as it is, all this happened.”

It was hard to argue with his logic, so I wrote the check.

The Refusal Denied

Ground school in Manassas, combined with the fact that I was compelled to buy the King DVD’s for ground school ended me up in the firehose effect.  All my free time was spent either driving to class or watching class on my laptop.  The first few months flashed before me, but I was finally getting a more holistic understanding of what happened that afternoon.

For the second year in a row, I quietly returned to that spot on the anniversary, even as the golf course floundered, reorganized and floundered again.  Looking at it, it was vaguely starting to make sense.

Weeds had replaced the scorched earth, dirt and grass, but the scarred trees remained as quiet sentinels, if you knew where to look. It was during that foggy epiphany that I decided that maybe I knew enough to walk away.  After all, now I understood the basics of why everything happened. My nightmares were still there, occasionally, but manageable. I was getting my head around the idea that it was ok to stop. Maybe… I was finished.

On August 11, 2002,  I’d just finished the afternoon ground school session and was on my way out of the building with my mind on a fast-food dinner, when Evelyn and a young flight instructor called me to the counter.

“Hi Charlie, I’m Christy.  I’m your primary flight instructor,” she said with an outstretched hand.

“No, No, No, No, No, Wait, Wait, Wait, I’m not actually going to fly one of those things, OK?  I’m just here for ground school” I stammered.

“Mr. Adams says you’re going to fly.  Your airplane is right there out that door.  See it?  Now, let’s go.” she said as she quickly rounded the counter and her voice converted from convivial to insistent.  With her tight choppy march, she ushered me out that glass door.

My life would never be the same again.

From then on, her instruction and professionalism never faltered, nor did that of anyone around or after her.

What Goes Up…

September 30, 2002.  By now, it had been a couple years since the local newspaper article had been published with the face of the man memorialized on its cover.  I stared at it for days.  I still see that face now, almost every single day, for the past twenty years.  What that article said has eventually fallen through the cracks in my mind, becoming intermingled with the event.  But I’ve never forgotten the face of the man I tried to save.  According to the article, he was the student pilot.

That lone fact tacked on an extra layer of terror.  Now, I understood the chain of events which caused those two people to die in front of me.  I understood the mechanics, the physics, and the basic principles of aerodynamics proven to be unwavering.  I appreciated to a greater degree why these unmovable boundaries, charted on graphs in manuals, were hammered home in ground school.

I was still having a hard time with the why.  I knew enough to know that the student pilot didn’t know the consequences he was about to face that day.  But I also knew enough to know that the instructor absolutely knew what he was doing; one would hope.  I’d never flown before, but if you could teach me all this, certainly you’d know how to apply it.  It would take me a long time to develop enough trust in Christy to be able to peel back the fear, not only of the machine, but of her.  She would ultimately prove to me that she was solid, and would openly protect me and herself from the boundaries of that machine.

As far as training went, the Part 141 approach was great for me.  I was task oriented, and Christy leveraged that part of my character to keep us hyper focused on the task and not the risk.  My flying life became more about the next lesson and less about the last fear.

After a few months of consistent flying with Christy, I decided that I finally had her convinced that I really didn’t WANT to fly.  With tasks becoming more repetitive, tolerances getting tighter, and me being forced more and more into control of this thing, I could tell that I was being pushed further and further away from just enjoying the scenery, and more and more toward a bigger objective.

One night, something about that realization triggered those nightmares which had started to fade.  It was a particularly lucid and jarring night, and I woke up exhausted. So, I decided for that morning’s lesson that maybe just an hour in the practice area to rest and recover was the best medicine.

So, during the post preflight taxi, I, without explaining why, asked if we could just go ride around the practice area so I could regroup. Christy, of course, had other plans.

“Show me a landing in the pattern first,” she said with eyes fixed firmly on the centerline of the taxiway.

“Ugh…OK,” was all I could muster.  It was a better than average demonstration, so I pressed, “How ‘bout we just get outta here.”

“Give me another one,” she insisted, her eyes locked straight forward and her hands on her kneeboard.

I was asking myself why can’t we just go back to the fun, if only for one hour?  I responded as commanded with a reasonable result; a little float but I kept flying until the 172 settled onto pavement.

“OK, that wasn’t that bad.  Now, before my hour is up, can we please…”

“GO TO THE RAMP!,” she blasted at me.

“S*** Christy.  I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to make you mad!” I stammered as we pulled up to the door and stopped. “Are we getting out?”

“WE aren’t getting out. I’M getting out.  YOU are going to give me three takeoffs and landings.  If I wave you over, you taxi over to talk to me.  If I wave you on, you do it again.”  At that, she slipped out the door and slammed it behind her, turning back with her final instruction.

“AND LOCK THIS DOOR!”  She walked away from me.  Time stood still.

“November seven-four-zero Sierra Papa, runway one-six right, taxi into position and hold,” was the next thing I heard. Terror.  I pushed down on the door lever to lock it as instructed.  I stumbled to respond then made my way to the stripes.  Seconds later, I was airborne and alone for the first time.  The airplane was making all these noises I’d never heard before.  It was falling apart.  It felt light. I could see the light out the right window like never before.  There was no time to consider anything other than getting this thing back onto the ground. I didn’t own it.  I couldn’t afford to wreck it.  I landed left of the centerline.

Christy waved me on, then, after a recovered float, waved me on again.  The third time was the charm and, just like that, my lesson was over.  I never did see the practice area that day.  I never did get to emotionally regroup.  I never got to see any scenery.  But from that day forward, fear took the back seat to finishing, not because I had rid myself of my almost crippling anxiety, but because I realized that she was invested in me.  What I hadn’t realized was that I had let myself become deeply invested as well.


Slowly the knowledge crept in. Slowly the fear was getting pushed further and further to the back of my consciousness, like squeezing the water to the bottom of the balloon. It was still there, it was still just as heavy, but I just tried more and more to look away from it and to keep learning.

A dual cross country to Charlottesville was quickly followed by a dual night cross country for Christy and I, which was met with a vacuum failure just north of Ashland. The magenta line would become my friend. A do-over.

Yes, the machine had faltered. Yes, I was afraid. But my instructor would hold the beast at bay that night, and we’d make it home. I had finally met common adversity in aviation, and was thankful to have an instructor to see us through.  A huge deposit into the bank of trust in Christy and a greater understanding of resourceful perseverance followed. She was calm, but mad. I was calm, but confused. It worked out fine.

Unfortunately, I flew very little solo time leading up to my first solo cross country. Looking back, that was a mistake. I was still anxiety ridden. I couldn’t trust a checklist. I couldn’t trust myself WITH a checklist. My overall feeling was that the plane was still flying me; I did not have command of the airplane.

The Long Road Home

I had prepped everything the day before in front of Christy for the solo long cross country. It would be HEF-LYH-RIC-HEF.  On paper, it was a lot. The NOTAMs alone were almost 60 pages. I struggled with what to put it all in and on, and finally settled on a clipboard.

I showed up at 7:30 the next morning to be met with the news that Christy wouldn’t be in until later. I had to go over all my paperwork before departure with Tom, who at that moment, was obsessed with the weather.

Pacing the floor, he made the ‘go’ decision and I was bound for Lynchburg, but not before I radioed back to the office with an airplane that wouldn’t start, only to hear Tom’s voice respond:

“Charlie, push the red mixture knob all the way in. See you this afternoon.”

I was Lynchburg bound. The plane made all those bad noises and flew weird until I got onto the short final in Lynchburg.  A pit stop, drink, signature in my logbook and I was headed to Richmond.  While flying down the James River, I got the first little twinge of normal. For an instant, I felt like I was just driving a car, with the highrises of Richmond in the distance until I called the wrong approach frequency. I corrected myself and called again to get everybody looking the right way for my arrival.  Rookie.

Landed at RIC. Pit stop, signature, fuel and oil check, and I was ready for home. Taxi and hold short instructions came next:

“I’ve got two guys coming in here a little faster than I think I can get you out.”

I glanced toward the final and saw absolutely nothing, only to have two F-117’s streak in front of me side by side and land.

“Cleared for takeoff runway two-zero. Caution, wake turbulence.”

Finding none, I was vectored for home. Once again, as I got over Kings Dominion, I got that strange feeling that I really WAS in control. The strange noises had a rhythm that was becoming normal.  I knew where I was and my paperwork had all been checked.  I realized that I’d done the work and that I really WAS going to be able to pull this off.

When I reached the Radomes, I recognized the straight train tracks and the hangars in the distance that were my home. I called ahead to make the obligatory contact with the tower.

It was in the silence after that call when I heard that unexpected voice.

“Welcome home, Charlie.”

It was Christy.

I’d done the impossible.


For me, I had done the impossible in overcoming my fear.

Checkride Days

Rampant anxiety, extinguished by sheer determination not to quit on Christy finally led me to my checkrides. I’m speaking in the plural because there were two. The first attempt found me at the examination table two hours early reviewing material. I had seen my examiner, the venerable Velta Snyder Haney Benn, in the building a few times but had never spoken to her, nor heard her utter a single word. On that day, we would be joined by a third gentleman. The two of them proceeded to get into a discussion over her Designated Pilot Examiner record, and how it was incorrect.  She said that her height and weight were incorrect, and that she couldn’t administer another checkride until it was corrected.  She was 85 pounds, not 93, and her height was 4 foot 7, not 5 foot 4.  She informed me that she was sorry, but this examination was terminated and that we would reschedule for another time.

That time would come oddly on June 24, 2004, exactly four years and one day from the original event.  After a comprehensive oral and flight exam, I took to the skies with the most influential total stranger I’d ever love. She asked me all the things that Christy had been polishing for months. An errant early departure from another pilot caused me to go around once in Culpeper, but beyond that, Ms. Velta was focused and instructive. We ultimately found ourselves on the ramp, idling before shutting down.  By then, I’d become somewhat used to that soft deep voice coming out of that tiny frame.

“Charles, she began, I’m sorry we couldn’t get this done sooner, but that guy a few weeks ago wanted to examine me, examining you.  He wanted to ride in the back seat of the airplane.  But for this moment, I wanted you to myself.  I hope that’s OK, Charles.”

“Yes, Ma’am,”was all I could come up with.  Obviously, I failed the ride somehow.  She continued:

“Well, Charles, I’ve been flying for sixty years now, and I’ve taught a lot of people to fly, from private pilot to combat aerobatics in the Air Force.  I was one of the first aviators, man or woman, to land an airplane on a moving aircraft carrier that had oak boards for a surface.”

“When Tom told me who you were, I started coming by on the days that you weren’t flying, I’d come here and look at your folder. I’d ask that you be made to fly with someone else, so Tom would change the schedule. I wanted to make sure that Christy wasn’t playing favorites with you because we all knew where you’d come from.”

“I wanted this moment to ourselves today, Charles, because with over twenty thousand flight hours and hundreds and hundreds of students, I’ve only known three people who have ever tried to learn to fly after seeing what I know you saw.  The first guy quit coming to class and the second guy had a nervous breakdown the night before his checkride. So, you’re the only person I’ve ever met who made it.  It’s incredible.”

By now I’m choking up (I still do). I’m fighting back the waterworks.  She’s looking at me and taps me on the knee then continued:

“So, I’m going to fly until I’m a hundred, Charles. I want to see you come back here to get your Instrument, Commercial, and Multi-Engine ratings from me so that I can see for myself that you turned out to be a good pilot; not because your skills are better than anybody else I’ve taught, but because while we all sit in the hangar on rainy days talking about it, you’ve been witness to the unforgiving nature of flight.  You’ve seen the price paid for errors in judgment, and I can tell that you’re a safer pilot for it.  It’s just not something that can be taught.  You’ve earned it.”

A Promise

It wasn’t many weeks after that that Christy announced that she was leaving for the airlines. I was broken. I wept like a baby in front of her. She knew why. They all did. She had hauled me up out of this hole of terror. She wasn’t alone, but she was always the one to whom I turned to when the days were particularly bad. I knew her. I trusted her judgment first. Always did. Always will. She taught me to love flying.

We flew a flawless instrument cross country together as a goodbye. She made me promise that I would finish, and threatened me if I didn’t.

By then, she had me flying with Diane, Tyson, and Andrew to whom she quietly passed off my records before she left.  All the groundwork was there with the high performance and complex sign-offs behind me, and the multi-engine rating underway for me to finish. I would never be allowed to break my promise.

The first day that Christy was no longer on the schedule, I flew with Diane And I realized that as much as I’d convinced myself that I was going to fall backwards without Christy, Diane wasn’t going to let me.  She personally knew the student pilot I tried to save.  It was her loss, too. So, I had no choice but to keep my promise. Diane would see to it.

The Birth of Enduring Love – Six Zulu November

Flying with Diane that first day taught me that aviation, as it turns out, is local. It wasn’t a month after my Private Checkride, while full steam ahead into my instrument rating, I got the call.

“I understand that you’re starting to fly,” said the familiar voice on the other end. “I want you to come out here to the farm and fly these airplanes!  They need to be flown and you can save a little money by not having to rent!”

After lunch the next day, I found myself standing in front of that very first small airplane I rode in.  Six Zulu November, as she was properly named, had waited quietly in the hangar for me for all those years, and to my left was ‘Juliet Tango,’ the F-Model Aztec, with its beefy wings and potato-shaped fuselage.

Those two airframes, the trust of a single pilot, and the tenacity of a small pack of steeled instructors, would go on to carry me the rest of the way through my aviation training.

But I’m Not Like You

In the end, I will never be able to be like you, and I pray you never end up being like me. You were born to look to the sky. My love of aviation was forged; It was gifted to me through the relentless passion poured out day after day by my instructors. Eventually, they convinced me that there had to be something to this thing. Like one hammer strike after another over an anvil, they forged me into the pilot I am today.

Looking back, with hundreds and hundreds of flight hours behind me now, emotionally I’m much better, but still different. I DO look to the sky to admire the form, grace, and symphony of a passer by, because now I understand that they’re not going to come careening in over the treetops to get me.  But I’m not a spotter.  I DO love static displays of cloth. aluminum, and composite, because I appreciate how far we’ve come as humans; but I’m not a genre junky. I AM filled with the wonder of what it must be like to fly some airplanes, and I have the licenses to do so if given the chance, but I don’t haunt trade shows. Then, there are the contraptions you couldn’t pay me to sit in, even on the ground.

For years, I’d tell myself that I was making this flight for Christy, or Diane, or Andrew, or Tyson, or Matt or any of the other stack of names in my coveted logbook. I was doing it to prove to them that I’d kept my promise.

Now, finally, after two decades, I’ve started to fly for me. I’ve paid them back for ultimately saving MY life.  Every single year on the date, I’ve gone back to that spot on that (now long gone) golf course. The last few years, I parked out on the road and walked in through the hip high grass to get there.  But I didn’t go back to the golf course this year.  I was out of the country.  Now, albeit still through the tears, I’ve written my story, and I won’t be going back there again.  It’s finally finished.

A Forged Pilot’s Takeaways on Aviation

So here’s what I have to say to you if you’re flying or want to fly. Becoming a pilot, as in most pursuits, offers life lessons that I’ve carried with me through the years. Hopefully, some of mine can help you be a better pilot.

  1. Fear conquers itself.  It’s only there to make you, make sure.  Once understanding creeps in, fear is pushed out.
  2. Check your ego in the parking lot of the FBO. I’ve yet to meet an old bold pilot.
  3. Trust, but verify, and re-verify what you trust to be true.   If you have any doubt in your understanding of even the ‘little’ things, fill in the gaps with examination, take your questions back to the books or a qualified CFI.  But know the verifiable answers before you ever start the airplane. What you’ll learn is that understanding the mission and the machine before you leave will save your life when things don’t go as planned.
  4. In seeking that understanding, seek words that make sense to you. Those words might come from other sources. If that’s the case, carry them back to your CFI for verification.
  5. Only settle for the whole picture. Don’t leave without it.
  6. As a CFI, always remember that it’s not what you say that matters. It’s what the student hears that can mean the difference between life and death. A great CFI knows how to demonstrate that they’re being heard, and knows how to recognize when they’re not.

And finally, in my mind, the greatest single flaw in all of aviation is that each one of us is trained by different people with different weaknesses solely to pass the same examinations. My true belief is that the safest and most powerful conveyance of knowledge is through one voice; where we all can learn the best, from the best.

In the memory of that student pilot and that instructor, I hope that my experiences and words will somehow help to make you a better pilot.

If you’re a pilot, you remember your greatest flight lesson. For most, it’s your first solo, or maybe your first solo cross country.  For me, it was that hot June day on a golf course. Even though I would never meet him, the last lesson that instructor ever taught, ultimately would become the best lesson I ever learned.


Charles Turner
32 replies
  1. John Majane III
    John Majane III says:

    Great story, so well written. Sorry that you had to witness the event you did but in the end it appears everything worked out.

  2. Mike Zonis
    Mike Zonis says:

    I began reading your story with much interest. I can’t imagine the trauma that crash you witnessed caused you. Doing what you did after that is extremely commendable. Great story!!
    Now, as I was reading I was reading, I could not believe that your examiner was Velta Benn. Velta was my instructor for my instrument, commercial and multiengine ratings! It was at PG Airpark in Prince Georges County, Maryland. She was wonderful and a super pilot. I went on to fly for an airline and after 30,000 hrs I still hear her instructing me. I’m retired now after 50 years of flying. if you want talk about Velta please feel free to call me at anytime. 904-233-5199.

  3. michael b sigman
    michael b sigman says:

    One of the most emotional and powerful aviation stories I think I have ever read. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  4. Rick Junkin
    Rick Junkin says:

    Thank you for sharing your story so eloquently. There are so many take-aways from your life after a tragedy that go beyond just aviation. But as a CFI you’ve given me yet another reference to remind me of the critical importance of ensuring I keep my focus on my student and what he or she needs to learn, how they need to learn it, and that what they hear is what I thought I said. You struck a strong chord with me, well done and again, thank you.

  5. Scott Felton
    Scott Felton says:

    I’m stunned. Thanks SO MUCH for sharing this story. Been flying 42 years, since I was 16, including 25 years in the Air Force, and I’m still the little boy who looks up at airplane sounds. Even so, I’m a little different now after reading this story.

  6. Marc Robertson
    Marc Robertson says:

    A moving story, I lost my best friend as a kid in Learjet accident , a flight I was supposed to be on but a paper route saved my life. Now a new private pilot with a new complex endorsement, I am back to weighing the risks of flying and the inevitable fear of losing an engine over the city etc. Your story helps push me back on track of continual learning and accuracy as a pilot , thanks!

  7. Dave Yonker
    Dave Yonker says:

    This is a story many should read, I have been flying for 43 years and own my own business, amazed at how many people hear what they want to hear. I have had many different instructors and learn something from each one. Never stop learning.

  8. John Banas
    John Banas says:

    This was one of the most important, and best written articles I’ve read here, including my sad attempt to be a writer. You captured a lot of the emotion that I have felt; and today with nearly 300 hours, I still prefer to be the “Coward in the Air” so I can fly another day.

    Well done! Welcome, belatedly, to The Sky!

    • JR
      JR says:

      Interesting? Yes. Informative? Yes. But best-written? Hardly.

      This article desperately needs proofreading. It’s full of grammatical and spelling errors that shouldn’t be there, especially from someone who’s a published author.

      • Charles Green Turner III
        Charles Green Turner III says:

        JR, I appreciate your input and understand your point. The polished version has completed editorial review and the corrections are due to be submitted in the morning. AI voice to text is not always clean. My fault. Having said that, and on an equally important note, what was your impression of the content?

        • Calais
          Calais says:

          I don’t know about ol’ JR, but while I noticed the grammatical things, it was the story itself that kept them in the shadows! It was written in a way that actually makes the aviation aspect of it simply the vehicle that delivered the lesson! It’s a life-lesson for anyone filled with the pain and doubt of trying to understand the impact of something they might never have considered would become part of their personal journey! So I applaud you for the inspiration you’ve given me and anyone else who might need it! Thank you!

  9. Sean Siff
    Sean Siff says:

    Charles, thank you for sharing your story. I applaud your courage to pursue your flight training in light of what you witnessed. Your story has motivated me to keep working on my own flight training. I am sure that your story will continue to help other readers too. Your perseverance really paid off, and congratulations on completing all of your ratings.

  10. Kenneth Ray Jackson
    Kenneth Ray Jackson says:

    Once I started reading your story I could not stop. I started flying 8 years ago and will turn 65 this summer. I could not relate to the trajedy you witnessed, but I did lose two neighbors to a plane crash. What I could relate to is the amount of persistence and determination that you demonstrated. Congratulations and thanks for sharing your story.

  11. Phil McClure
    Phil McClure says:

    What a great presentation of a horrendous event, met with heroic intent, followed by a story of recovery and ascension from fear. The segments where Christy sent you on your solo and Velta gave you her story after your private check ride brought tears to my eyes. I learned to fly when I was 57, with money that my Mom left me when she passed at a young 68 years old. My flight instructor, Diego Restrepo will always hold a special place in my heart.

  12. Christopher McClure
    Christopher McClure says:


    What a superbly written story! I have been flying for slightly over 40 years, and I had witnessed a couple of military aircraft crashes before I ever sat in the pilot’s seat for my first lesson. Fortunately in the accidents that I witnessed, no one was seriously injured. Your story brought tears to my eyes because your writing was so effective at helping this reader visualize your experiences. I too am so grateful to my instructors for their skill at teaching. I applaud your fortitude and courage in sticking with flying. Safe skies to you!

  13. John Streyle
    John Streyle says:

    I had to wipe the tears as I read this story. As someone who’s always been an “airplane nut”, I’ve never experienced such a horrific thing: but it is described so well here that one can almost smell and hear the crash. Fly safe, friends!

  14. Hunter Heath
    Hunter Heath says:

    Like other commenters, I used a few tissues to get through this compelling story. As I’ve written here before, I “inherited” a lifetime fascination with aviation from my father, but only took up flying in my 40s. Back then, I’d never witnessed a plane crash or known anyone who died in an aircraft accident. Now, I have known more people who died in light aircraft crashes than in auto accidents. I don’t know if I would have begun flying had that been reversed, but the subsequent aircraft losses and deaths have not diminished my love of and fascination with personal flight. At 81 and physically disqualified, were I able, I would still be flying my 11AC Chief and trying to get better at it. While I have your attention,!et me call out my primary CFI, Robbie Robinson of Rochester, Minnesota. His patience and persistence made possible my many years of safe and enjoyable flight. Robbie, I hope you’re still at it! I owe you.

  15. KC
    KC says:

    Great story, Charles. Thanks for sharing. A wonderful illustration that what we’re given may not be as important as what we do with it. I’m sharing your story and this page with some of my non-aviation friends who may find it inspiring. Congratulations for your accomplishments, and following through even though personal doubts, upsetting memories and nightmares, and all the rest may have made it seem doubtful. Congratulations on surrounding yourself, intentionally or not, with instructors who recognized your path of doing the right thing with what you had been given. Best of luck and fortune in all your endeavors!

  16. Daryl Austermiller
    Daryl Austermiller says:

    Superb !! Licensed in 1968 while in ROTC – USAF – Airline – and now flying an Exp. Super Cub. Tears everywhere – best article ever – knowledge beyond compare – I have renewed respect for risk assessment because of you ! Thanks !!

  17. Tom Curran
    Tom Curran says:

    I think that folks who critique your “writing mechanics”, especially in this forum, are missing the point. Regardless, I thought your article was heartfelt, moving, and instructive.

    I’ve had several friends and colleagues killed during my military and civilian flying careers; they all died horribly, and not always instantaneously. They all left a lasting impression on how I approach my own flying.

    Thanks very much for sharing.

  18. CCC
    CCC says:

    Just want to say thank you, thank you, thank you for making the effort to write and share this story. As a student pilot, I really needed to read it.

  19. Mr. Michael Harman Smith
    Mr. Michael Harman Smith says:

    I had the same instruction for my final check ride, Velda (I thought it was spelt) Benn, tiny and mean! She shouted at me to slip the airplane on a high and fast final in my C-172 into HEF when I thought you weren’t supposed to with full flaps. I did, had fun doing it, crabbing down until at the right height and speed to flare the airplane to my most perfect landing ever! Same airport at least a dozen years before you, sometime in the early to mid nineties. I too, thought she had flunked me when she signed me off in my logbook. Then she handed it to me and said, “Now go and learn to fly!” My ‘base’ was Orange, Virginia, I forget the designator, O-something. An earlier instructor had pulled the alt air knob halfway out during departure from HEF so the airspeed indicator did not work. He insisted I continued my climb and we flew all of the wqy back to Orange by visual, feel and sound.
    I did not notice your grammatical errors, too engrossed in your story. I struggle with my own writing. I have only heard about the fatals, not seen them. A guy I knew much earlier in Culpeper, when I was flying only RC model airplanes. He was a hot-shot former WWII pilot who later ‘bought the farm’ glider towing our of Warrenton, Va. We had wondered when he would make a fatal mistake years before. Sad. We once saved a guy’s bacon by running out into the middle of the old Culpeper Airport’s grass field, causing him to do a go around and next time lowering his gear first. He was so pridefully embarrassed he wouldn’t even look at us as he back taxied to our luxurious ‘terminal’ a free standing aluminum phone booth and old 8 foot wide trailer. All semblances of old hangars had already been long gone.

  20. Paul Harrison
    Paul Harrison says:

    Inspiring words indeed. I find myself thinking that there’s a book in you Charlie, a book comparable to those written by Ernest K Gann, a name we should all know. Your words have inspired me to forge ahead to get back into the air at 72 years old. I’m excited now, and your example has energised me to restart the stopped process. Thank you.

  21. John Frederick
    John Frederick says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. This is one of the most important aviation articles I have ever read. The details you shared transported me (virtually) to that crash site so I could clearly see the horrific consequences of poor aeronautical decision making. This article should be required reading for all pilots and will share with my family and friends.

    • Charles Green Turner III
      Charles Green Turner III says:

      Thank you John. I’m humbled by your words. I’m thankful to be able to reach out and be heard. That’s what’s so important to me.

  22. Armando Lewin Sr
    Armando Lewin Sr says:

    I can’t thank you enough personally for the painstaking brutal yet thought-provoking time you spent writing this. I am actually in Yokohama, Japan reading this after a crash that happened in Van Nuys, California with my CFI girlfriends work plane and a coworker with a student, not to mention that this story was sent to me by another student at an Academy, where I teach in Torrance, California, who lost his best friend in a Citation jet only a few weeks ago who I met the week before. You spoke about being born versus forged, I’m not sure if I was born to be a pilot or not even though my first big dream was to be an astronaut and I settled on pilot. I also witnessed a crash at an airshow right in the parking lot in front of me , I will never forget it although the pilot survived thankfully. As a 13,000 plus Hour ATP, CFII, MEI and Tailwheel / Aerobatic Instructor your story will become a classic for many to learn from as it’s so valuable for so many, your life is truly a gift to all of us, I plan to share your story with so many pilots and students who need to hear it. I literally just got off the phone with a student who was traumatized by the crash two days ago talking about how scared he was to go back to training after reading this I am sending it to him directly, and to many of the others spoken to this week. Thank you so much for your share and for your great writing don’t stop and God bless.


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