Miracle Airplane Crash Survival Story
Crashed! The Amazing Miracle of Survival For One Man And His Family: Meet Brian Brown
Written by Patti Gillespie
As a fire chief and captain for over 25 years, Brian Brown had seen his share of rescue operations. This first responder thought that planning and being prepared; trusting in himself and his skills would always be enough. But that wasn’t the case on one warm, sunny day in May, when Brown was piloting his family on a quick getaway from California to Idaho to see his eldest daughter. A drastic change in weather and suddenly there was nothing he could do to outthink or outfly what was happening as his plane headed straight for a mountain and crashed in a deep canyon below. Risen sat down with Brown to hear this miracle story about surviving, being rescued and how this experience changed his faith.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine in Wilton, California
Risen Magazine: Surviving a plane crash is a miracle in itself, but your story involves a pretty dramatic rescue as well. Let’s start with the moments leading up to the crash. What was that experience?
Brian Brown: This flight was a trip to see my daughter, Tabitha in Idaho. My wife Jayann and youngest daughter Heather and I were heading there to spend the weekend, and then I was going to fly home by myself and the girls were going to all drive back to California. When we started out, we had a clear flight and made it to Susanville, [California] where I had planned a stop for fuel, and I got a weather update. The report indicated that there was a band of weather right in our flight path, but it was moving east which was some relief, and actually could create a tailwind and push us across [the mountain area] faster. We waited it out a little while to make sure the weather was truly moving and doing what [officials] said it would. We ended up having lunch and took off from Susanville once another update found that things were looking pretty good for us. We made it all the way to within about an hour from our destination before I could see that weather band in front of us.
I thought maybe it would still stay ahead of us, but we were gaining ground on it. We ended up hitting the weather front and when I got into it, it was raining so hard that I couldn’t actually see through the windshield. I opted at that point to do a 180 degree turn out of it and use my “Direct To” button on the GPS to find an airport to land right away; it finds the five closest. It found Rome, Oregon, and with the way the weather was, my thought was to just get on the ground and be safe. When I flew over Rome and saw it, I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” There was only a deserted gravel landing strip, no buildings whatsoever, no pavement, no anything…just desert and then a gravel strip and a sign that said, Rome State Airport. But the bottom line was we were on the ground, we were safe and everything was good. We called Tabitha and told her we had some delays, hit some weather. Really at that point, we thought we would have to end up spending the night in the airplane out there in the middle of that field, and nobody liked that idea, especially the girls.
Risen Magazine: Was it cold there?
Brian Brown: It was. Raining, but it wasn’t freezing, right on the edge. I kept getting out of the plane and wiping the water off of the edges of the wings to make sure if it did freeze, it wouldn’t create ice. This was around 3-4:00 in the afternoon. The girls kept asking what it would take for us to continue at this point and I told them I had to see the mountains, there couldn’t be any bad weather, because the last part of the trip would be going over the Owyhees [mountain range] and I needed daylight. I told them if I could see and we had at least an hour’s worth of daylight and good weather to get over those mountains clearly, then we would make that final route.
(Brian later found out that little did he know, his wife had been praying during those hours for God to provide a crystal clear sign on what to do — “Dear God, do we take off or don’t we? If it is Your will that we take off, let there be no doubt in anyone’s mind.“)
Well, about an hour before sun down, the weather cleared. And it cleared to the point that I felt comfortable making that final hop. We took off again, but as we approached the [mountain] ridge lines the weather actually started forming again right in front of us. I saw one towing cumulus cloud start to build in front of me so I veered off to the right and as soon as I did I saw another one forming. I was [now] in the mindset that we were turning around and going back. When I looked behind us, we were completely socked in, so there was no turning back at that point.
Because I’m not an instrument rated pilot, I was trying to stay underneath the cloud layer, but above the mountain ridge line, so we were only about 900 feet above the ground at this point and I went over the ridge line. We had a cloud right in front of us that I had to go through and when I reached the other end of it there was the mountain right in front of us. We did an immediate turn away from that and went over one or two more ridge lines at that point. We are bouncing around quite a bit because it is pretty turbulent, and as we got over another ridge line there was a reverse flow of air like an undertow, and it ripped the air flow from right underneath the wing of the aircraft. We went from 110 mph down to 40 mph. When I saw that, that’s when I told the girls, “I’m sorry, I don’t think we’re going to make it.”
Risen Magazine: Oh my gosh! Once the plane crashed, what was your first awareness as you realized that you were alive?
Brian Brown: Well, going back a minute, before all of that happened, I think it was just before we went through that last cloud, Jayann had said a prayer out loud… “God, this is a lot scarier than we thought, please put your angels on our wings and help us through this.” She wasn’t really trying to [quote scripture] but if you read Psalm 91 it is almost word for word what she prayed.
So yes, we crashed…but instead of going nose in, we actually hit a couple of trees and belly-flopped on the mountain going uphill. The trees had slowed us down enough to keep the plane intact. [Another miracle.] Jayann and I both hit the windshield and lost consciousness and the impact had ripped the door off of her side. According the Heather [she was in the rear seat] I was only out for a couple of seconds and when I woke up, blood was oozing down my face, but my first thought was, “Wow! We’re still alive!” I couldn’t believe it.
Heather was screaming, “Help, pick Mom up!” I looked over and saw Jayann just kind of laying limp like a rag doll and she was falling out of the aircraft; the seatbelt was holding her in place a bit, but Heather was also holding on to her vest and trying to keep her from falling out. I reached over and grabbed her and pulled her back into the airplane. When I got a look at her face, her eyes were rolling back and she was having deep snoring respirations. I knew that meant a head injury; a pretty bad one. She wasn’t conscious or alert and when I pulled her back in I was trying to position her to where I could open her airway back up. I was bleeding all over her [from my head injury] but we kept calling to her to stay with us. It was some time maybe around a minute before she took a big gasp of air and opened her eyes and said, “I’m still here, I’m okay.”
So for me, here’s another miracle in addition to just surviving the crash. I moved Jayann over to my seat because it was the most stable in the aircraft, and also finished checking on Heather. She had some sore areas but was not visibly bleeding. I thought maybe a pelvic fracture because she was still strapped in. Stuff was [thrown] all over and the sun was going down, but we could still see.
We had a cloud right in front of us that I had to go through and when I reached the other end of it, there was the mountain right in front of us
Risen Magazine: Wow! You said that Jayann prayed. Was that your first instinct upon the crash too?
Brian Brown: Not really. Before [the crash] and with my experience, I could find an earthly and logical explanation of why something happened. I would find those explanations of why this person survived and why this happened this way. But from the moment of surviving the impact to all of the little incidents that kept happening, I could see [the hand of] God. And as I sat in the plane in the middle of that night, pitch dark and freezing, I just kept thinking, “I shouldn’t be here.” And I was trying to find those logical explanations, but they just weren’t there.
Risen Magazine: Immediately after the crash, being a trained first responder yourself and assessing the injuries of each of you, you realized you were in the middle of your own 911 emergency. So you decide to get out of the plane, climb up the canyon a little way and try to get a signal out with your transmission radio. What happened?
Brian Brown: I knew I needed to try and transmit a Mayday but didn’t get any response. I realized that I had to try to do something to try and keep us warm. I drained the fuel out of the wings and ended up spilling it all over me and when I lit the fire it actually put me in flames. It got my arm, but it only burned the fuel that was on my arm and not my skin at all. Unfortunately, Heather saw that and it is was just one more thing for her to stay emotionally intact through. She really, really held it together because of everything that she saw and everything that was going on, from her back seat view.
The fire only burned for a few minutes because it was too wet. I needed to shelter our plane and ended up finding the door and put it back on.
During the time I was gone from the plane though, Jayann kept saying prayers. When I came back, Heather said, “Mom keeps praying that she’s ready to go.”
I asked, “Well what are you saying to her?”
“I told her to knock it off because I’m not ready to go yet.”
Risen Magazine: I know a cell phone played a key in your being rescued. Tell me about that.
Brian Brown: We were cold but sheltered in the plane. Heather kept asking me what we were going to do. I’m sure she was worried if her parents were going to make it through the night. I told her it depended on Tabitha making a call to get the rescue started. (Since there was not a formal flight plan, Brian depended on Tabitha knowing their route, plans, and timing, and hoping that she would report them not showing up on schedule).
Also during this time, I asked Heather to do a roll call for us. Every 15 minutes she had to call out our name. Because both Jayann and I had really significant head injuries, and the hypothermia was starting to set in, I didn’t want us to fall asleep. So every 15 minutes Heather would call out our name until we gave a loud response that we were still there. That went on all night, but at midnight, a cell phone rang.
Risen Magazine: Had you even thought about using one of your cell phones before this?
Brian Brown: No, truthfully there were so many other priorities that were happening [after the crash] I was focused on shelter, fire, food, water. All of that was going through my head at that point, and I had my aviation radio which I thought at some point could kick in. We didn’t even know where the phones were because [upon crash] everything went flying. So we are sitting in the cockpit, its pitch dark, it’s snowing and we’re freezing, we had one blanket, which Heather had given to us, and the phone rang. We heard the ring tone “Dancing Queen” [by Abba] which we knew was Tabitha calling Jayann’s phone. I tell you, the face of the phone lit up the cockpit and it really lit us up too. Sitting there emotionally, all of a sudden to get this miracle phone call in the middle of a mountain canyon, we just couldn’t believe it. Heather dove down into the wreckage and found the phone and also mine right next to it. By that time, the phone had stopped ringing and went to voice mail. Jayann and I, in a bit of a haze, tell Heather to call Tabitha back and ask her to call 911. Heather looks at us and responds, “That’s crazy, I’m calling 911 myself!” [Laughs]
Heather then begins waving the two phones around because when she looks at them, Jayann’s phone had an intermittent bar signal flashing on and off, but the battery was almost dead; it was in the red. When she looked at my phone, it was just above being in the red, but had no signal at all. She’s got these two phones and she’s waving them around and dialing 911 over and over again. Finally one connects. She puts it on speaker because I told her we are only going to get one shot at this, so let’s all hear it and give the dispatcher as much information as we can.
When we heard, “Owyhee County 911, what is your emergency?” I thought, “Okay, thank God, we know for sure that somebody knows we are out here somewhere.” That phone call was very broken and we weren’t sure of all that was going through. In fact, if you listen to the 911 tape of that call, it is hit and miss, but what comes through clearly is Heather saying, “Hi, I’m in an airplane and I have crashed and we’re in the mountains.”
Risen Magazine: You spent nearly 15 hours before finally being rescued. Did you think that once you reached the emergency dispatcher you would soon be found?
Brian Brown: Well, I knew that even though we had contact, they [rescuers] only had a general idea of where we were. It was probably about an hour to an hour-and-a-half after the call to 911, when we started hearing helicopters. But they were flying in near white-out conditions so they couldn’t see us. The storm was getting worse. In my mind I was thinking, “Shoot they are flying over us now and they will be finished looking and move on.” But I wasn’t relaying this info to the girls. I didn’t want to worry them. I was also thinking about the fact that we were in the wilderness and I had left a significant blood trail up and back down the side of the mountain when I did that hike [out of the plane] hoping that I didn’t attract anything [wild] to come in our direction.
The helicopters stopped for a while because the conditions were too bad for them to fly. One had left the area completely and the other one actually landed a couple of miles away to wait it out for a better opportunity to go back out. They landed at a command center where the rescue team gathered to do some planning. From that [meeting] the pilot that ended up finding us had learned where we had taken off from so he was able to pinpoint us. Once daylight was coming back, he took off again to search for us.
That’s when we heard the helicopter again. Now there was enough daylight that I felt I could get out of the plane and walk around safely. I told the girls I was going to go out and try and light a signal fire again. When I reached down to light that fire, the helicopter came right over the top of us. I couldn’t light that fire quickly enough so I grabbed my phone which I had placed in my pocket during the middle of the night. (Pausing, Brown adds) When I was putting the phone in my pocket, Jayann came out of her fog for a moment and asked me, “What about that flashy thing on your phone?”
So as I’m now grabbing my phone, I turned on the camera and started flashing the light. They [the helicopter] missed it the first time. I looked at the phone, and although it had no signal, I remembered that the dispatcher told us if we hear the rescuers to call back – which at the time we kind of chuckled about because we had no phone service. But I dialed 911 and it connected, but dropped. But the dispatcher was able to see it was my phone and radioed the helicopter to say, “You must be close because they just called again.”
I later learned that the helicopter pilot at this point was thinking, “They are still alive down there?” He told the dispatcher that they thought they saw something and were going back for a better look. I turned on the phone again and switched on the strobe app [the flashy thing Jayann earlier referred to]. This time, the pilot saw it. That was another moment that just dropped me to my knees and I was yelling to the girls, “They found us! It won’t be long, they found us!” I got back into the plane and explained that the key thing was they found us, but since we were in the middle of nowhere, it could take a while for them to actually reach us.
Risen Magazine: Your rescue was quite dramatic with the weather conditions and location making it difficult for any helicopters to land and pick you all up. I understand that the rescuers had to actually land on a ridge line about a mile away and hike down to you?
Brian Brown: It was probably about an hour from the time they had spotted us until we heard a search whistle. I asked the girls if they could hear it and they did so I called out and as soon as I did, you could hear the whistle repeat back …[making sound]. We were excited to hear the whistle and they were excited to hear a voice. They later told us they heard my voice and responded back and then heard multiple voices because the girls started yelling. They [rescuers] said their hearts were pounding out of their chests because they were so excited. They didn’t know if anyone was alive and now there was more than one. The pilot called out “I see you!” And then we got that first glimpse of him looking through the front windshield at us. He started getting teary eyed too. He later told us that he had been doing this a long time and had never pulled a live body out of the mountain, and here he finds a plane with everyone alive. He looked at the plane and looked around and said, “You’re my hero.” There was a flight crew with him carrying supplies to help and treat us.
Risen Magazine: So, you weren’t able to just get up and all get out of the plane at that point?
Brian Brown: No. Once they saw our injuries, there was no way they would want us to move around anymore. The rescuers were thinking worst case scenario of what our injuries were. Eventually they were able to get the National Guard to help with the rescue.
The weather was cleared just enough for them to get us out one at a time by a stretcher hoist lift. A transport helicopter then took us individually to the hospital.
Risen Magazine: What were the injuries that you each sustained?
Brian Brown: I had a head injury, broken arm, broken nose, crushed several ribs, lacerations on other arm and leg. Jayann had a head injury, concussion, broken multiple ribs and also lacerations on her leg. Heather’s injuries were mostly deep bruising in the pelvic area and all of us suffered from trauma.
I kept seeing one miracle after another and I knew somebody was with us
Risen Magazine: You have written a book titled, Rescued, about the experience. What made you want to write this and what is your hope in sharing this experience?
Brian Brown: Well, that is interesting. My sister is married to the editor at Harvest House Publishers. Shortly after we were back home, the TODAY show had come to interview me, and my sister was there listening to the interview. Her jaw just hit the floor and she said, “Oh my gosh, this story really needs to get out.” She had encouraged me to take notes, [during the healing process] which I had already been doing, but for a totally different reason. I was gathering information for who I needed to thank. When the TODAY show had us on, their focus was on the cell phone ringing.
The book allows me to tell the whole story. The response I often hear from people after reading it is “Wow!” It really hits them about what happened. It is the story of what really slapped me in the face about where my relationship with God needed to be. I went to church with Jayann once in a while, but I didn’t really spend a lot of time in prayer. Through this [experience] I kept seeing one miracle after another and I knew somebody was with us. People sometimes ask about the title. Well it means a lot of different things. Yes, we were physically rescued off the side of a mountain, but in a lot of ways I was spiritually rescued.
Risen Magazine: Subsequently, the book has allowed you to share your faith. But have you had opportunities to speak as well, and if so, what has that been like?
Brian Brown: Yes. Locally, we spoke in front of our church. There are about 3,000 attendees in that congregation so we were able to touch on quite a few people. I spoke to the men’s prayer breakfast at that church. In addition to other churches, I’ve spoken to groups such as The Civil Air Patrol, a Chaplaincy Program and the Office of Emergency Services in the [San Francisco] Bay Area. I was also part of a training video with the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.
Risen Magazine: You have an opportunity and now a platform in which you can share your experience. It is so personal and people can’t dispute that.
Brian Brown: Yes it’s funny you should say that because when our pastor read the book, he basically commented, “You can give a friend a Bible and try and get them to believe in God, and pray, but they are not going to read it. But if you give them this book, and then you explain to them where God was in this family’s life, they will read this book. They will have a hard time putting it down.”
We currently have a couple of speaking engagements a month and just when I think it all settles down, my publicist calls and there is another opportunity to speak.
Risen Magazine: Have you flown a plane since the accident? If so, what was that first time like back in the pilot’s seat?
Brian Brown: Yes. I flew about 8 months after the crash. Part of the timing was that I had to get medical clearance from my injuries. Once I did, I was right back in the seat again. There was some anxiety and I talked over the whole situation with the instructor that was doing the check ride for me. Obviously I had to go through a check ride through the FAA again. I had anxiety when I was pre-flighting the airplane, but once the motor started I was right back in the pilot groove.
We got off the ground and she had me perform stalls right away, which is what caused the accident. I did that fine. I did a bunch of other maneuvers and practiced the short field landing. [Slight chuckle] This is one of the more technical skills that a pilot has to perform. Essentially you have to pick a spot on the runway and the plane has to touch that spot and then it has to stop within a fairly short distance. I did it the first time; I hit it right on the money. She looked up and said, “I think that might have been luck, let’s do that again.” So I did it again and right on the money. She made me move over to a different runway that had crosswind trouble and I did it one more time and she said, “Okay, I think you’ve got it.” And jokingly I held onto the brakes and said, “Listen, I’m not really proud of this, but I’m really well known for stopping the plane on a short spot.” She chuckled, finished our test ride and it was a really great experience. She was really proud of me for getting back in there.
Risen Magazine: How has surviving the crash shifted or changed any perceptions or the way you go about life now?
Brian Brown: Well this really opened my eyes to paying attention. That’s been a big message with all of this. There are constantly things hitting you every day, all day. Things that you need to be paying attention to that will make you better in your faith, and your walk, and relationships in general with everybody. A lot of times we will either disregard that or blow them off. I pay attention now.
Exclusive Interview originally published in Risen Magazine, Summer 2014
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