By Stuart Jackson
It was a warm summer day on July 17, 2013 when my friend and fellow pilot, Mike, asked if I would like to fly with him in his 1941 Stearman Bi-plane to an aviation enthusiasts meeting at a privately owned airport in southern Spartanburg County, SC. Mike is one of the best pilots I’ve ever known. He has a side business of offering flights to the general public in his open cockpit bi-plane. Mike often allowed me to fly his plane and practice take-offs and landings, which I was doing before our meeting at 6:30pm on the evening of July 17th.
The weather was fine and we were both enjoying flying the Stearman that afternoon. I was “acing” all of my take-offs and landings too. There was an appreciative audience of pilots and volunteers on the ground watching as we flew around the airstrip. The grass runway at this airport is 7000 feet long. We were flying from South to North along the runway. There happens to be an 80 foot gradual rise from the South end to the North end of this runway and this would have a tremendous impact on how this flight went terribly wrong that day.
When it was getting time for our meeting to start, I turned the control stick back over to Mike and he then prepared to do a maneuver called “the hammerhead”. This entails flying along the runway at just above ground level and then steeply climbing up, which results in a stall, before turning the plane around to face in the opposite direction and making a sweeping low pass again. During this maneuver, the pilot is watching the altimeter to make sure he has enough altitude to complete the turn. Mike had done this dozens of times at the opposite end of the runway.
If you have ever been to an airshow, you’ve seen pilots, as they do their acrobatics and maneuvers, turn on the smoke for “effect”. Mike had turned on his “smoke” and we were trailing masses of it as we made the final pass before the starting the steep climb. As we climbed, Mike was watching his altimeter. I had my eyes outside the cockpit. When we reached the stall, I knew good and well that we did not have enough altitude to complete this maneuver.
It was a strange, but very calming and peaceful presence that I felt at this moment. I knew we were going to crash and it was going to hurt, but I also knew that we were both going to survive. I can say with certainty that it was the Holy Spirit that had given me this assurance. I have a foggy recollection of flying through the branches of a tree and hitting my head hard on the right side of the cockpit. I also recall landing very hard and dirt flying in my face. Mike had managed to turn the plane right side up and facing down the direction of the runway before hitting the tree. The observers on the ground told us that, as we landed hard, the wheels of the plane broke off and we bounced about 5 feet in the air and then landed with the stub axles digging into the ground. With the forward momentum, we were flipped upside down and put into a slide on the top wing for about 50 feet.
I vaguely recall fiddling with my harness buckle to free myself. This is difficult as I am now hanging upside down. Somehow I managed to get free and alongside the wing. I was told that Mike pulled me up and helped me get away from the wing, which was full of fuel. The plane could have burst into flames, but we were spared. I remember Mike saying to me when we were clear of the wreckage, “The Lord has other plans for us, Stuart”.
Miraculously, we both survived with only minor injuries. Apart from abrasions and bruising, Mike needed 20 stitches for a head laceration and I had a mild concussion. The only lasting injury I sustained is stiffness and pressure in my right shoulder, probably from the plane’s shoulder harness. I see this stiffness as a reminder of how the hand of my Lord Jesus Christ was on me that day delivering me from the jaws of death and giving me a testimony of His grace in my life.
Being originally from Yorkshire, England, I was raised in the Church of England. Up until a year before this plane crash, I was a nominal Christian without a personal relationship with Christ. But through seeing the emptiness in my brother’s eyes as he was dying a few years before this, recognizing the emptiness in my own life, and then talks with Pastor Matt Miller as he helped me understand and apply the gospel, I came to a personal relationship with Christ.
Now I know I have been spared to continue in my Christian walk here on earth, where I can serve and be part of a vibrant church family. In telling this story, it is my honor and joy to testify to His mercy and praise His Holy Name to all who will listen.
Last Friday was the anniversary of the crash. I got a text message from Mike saying “Hey 2 years ago today God had different plans for you and me.”