Return Flight

In Edgewater, a small plane takes pilot John Theune back to the sky, leaving the nightmares of a frightful crash behind on the runway.

February 03, 2004|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

EDGEWATER - No one showed the slightest interest last month when John Theune took off from Lee Airport one morning in the middle of the week.

None of the airport staff or the regulars bothered to step out into the frigid air to watch. No well-wishers came to Edgewater to see him off.

It all looked perfectly ordinary and inconsequential. John revved the Cessna's engine, accelerated down the runway and, with a tug of the yoke, nosed the little plane skyward as effortlessly as a kite swept aloft by a gust of wind.

Nothing to it; exactly as John, 47, had hoped.

He never seriously considered that he wouldn't fly again, although at first his wife, Amy, remained adamantly opposed to the idea. For much of the last year, such preoccupations were theoretic at best. Initially, keeping John and their son David among the living was Amy's only desire.

Their prognoses were grim when Amy reached Atlanta's Grady Memorial Hospital on New Year's Day last year. David, then a 12-year-old seventh grader, had been virtually scalped in the accident; his neck was fractured in two places, and his left hand was almost severed. By comparison, though, David was the fortunate one. John's face had been shattered, he had inner-cranial bleeding and his skull was swelling to the limits of toleration. Surgeons performed a tracheotomy in his neck because his air passageways were nearly squeezed shut.

Below his head, John's injuries were only slightly less grievous. He had broken ribs where the yoke had rammed into his chest before smashing into his face. The impact had also caused a clot in the artery of the lung. Both bones in his left forearm were fractured, as was the femur of his right leg.

Both father and son were in comas.

Meanwhile, at the scene of the accident, not quite 20 miles to the northwest, an investigator picking through the cockpit of a crumpled Piper Cherokee had discovered two unused tickets to the previous night's Peach Bowl in Atlanta between the Maryland Terps and the University of Tennessee.

That's where John and David had been headed when they took off Dec. 31, 2002, from Tipton Airport in Odenton, not far from their Severna Park home. The pair had logged many hours together in rented planes during the previous four years, ever since John, a software engineer, had achieved his childhood dream of attaining his pilot's license.

Since then, he had flown more than 500 hours, had been instrument-rated and was working toward his commercial pilot's license. His long-term goal was certification as a flight instructor. Being a pilot, he felt, had completed him, given him a sense of freedom and confidence.

David, who prefers computer games to athletics, had happily piggybacked on his father's passion. He often accompanied him in the skies, and sometimes got to steer from the co-pilot's seat. There were jaunts to the Eastern Shore, to Myrtle Beach, to Long Island, where John was raised. The high point each year were their trips to Oshkosh, Wis., for the big annual air show.

So it was hardly out of the ordinary that a week before the Peach Bowl, John suggested the pair fly down to Atlanta for the game. Amy, who is a nurse, didn't mind. She and their 14-year-old daughter, Megan, would have a girls' night out on New Year's Eve, at First Night in Annapolis. "We were going to have an estrogen holiday if they were going to have a testosterone one," is how Amy, 46, puts it.

The boys flew off in the single engine four-seater at mid-morning. It wasn't a bad day for flying, except for the strong headwinds. After a couple of hours, John brought the plane down for a quick bathroom break in Danville, Va., near the North Carolina border. While there, he decided to refuel.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board's preliminary report, the pair took off from Danville at 1:35. What John knows of their trip is educated conjecture, based on David's limited memories, investigative records and supposition. To this day, John himself cannot remember the flight.

Because of the headwinds, it was a bumpy trip. As they neared Atlanta after 5 p.m., the fuel gauge seemed to indicate that they were out of gas, which did not square with John's calculations. But in turbulent weather, certain types of fuel gauges are unreliable because measurements are based on a "float" in the fuel tank that bounces erratically in rough weather. Pilots are trained not to rely on gauges. They must be able to estimate fuel amounts based on speed, air conditions, time and distance.

Having taken note of all those factors, John seemed to have calculated that whatever the gauge was telling him, he had ample fuel left.

But as the plane descended from the clouds and into more serene air, the fuel gauge stabilized. It held firm at "Empty."

At 5:30 p.m., now 12 miles from Fulton County Airport, John radioed traffic control that he had lost engine power. A minute later, radar and radio contact with the plane ended.

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