Never Again: Heart attack aloft

December 8, 2009

It was a great day to fly in the Midwest with low humidity, gentle winds, and an infinite sky. My older brother and I lived in Ohio, and I was planning to pick him up in Greenwood, Indiana, an hour away by Cessna 172 Skyhawk, and fly him home.

I launched into that gorgeous sky from Dayton-Wright Brothers Airport, and I could see a replica of the Wright B Flyer before turning crosswind and starting my westbound trip. The top of the haze layer was barely 1,000 feet agl, and the air was smooth at my cruising altitude of 3,500 feet. I clicked the autopilot on and watched the corn and grain fields pass by underneath. My wife is a frequent aerial companion, but on this day I was alone, and looking forward to my brother’s company on the return trip.

There was a slight headwind, but the GPS showed I’d arrive in Greenwood right on time. I monitored Dayton Approach and listened to the brisk pace of general aviation activity. Lots of pilots were flying, and I felt a brotherhood with the others who, like me, wanted to touch the sky. At the halfway point, I switched over to Indianapolis Approach for flight following. All seemed quiet in their eastern sector as I flew through. I spotted Connersville, Indiana, a place with lots of parachute jumping, but the field was quiet below.

Then I felt a sudden, intense pressure in the center of my chest. It was as though something hard was poking me, jamming into me. I strained against it and the pain radiated out to my shoulders. It occurred to me that I might be having a heart attack. But how could this be? I had just become eligible for Medicare a few months earlier and had a long series of tests that included heart stress tests and CT scans. By all accounts, my cardiovascular system was in great shape. I had been a jogger for years and watched my diet carefully. Just a week before this flight, I obtained a new third class medical certificate. No, this pain couldn’t be a heart attack.

I took off my headset and wiped the sweat off my head. I was soaking in sweat from the waist up. I knew I had to do something, and quickly. But the pain was severe and it continued to grow. Connersville was close by and an obvious place to land. But could I get help there?

Just as suddenly as it began, the pain ended. What had happened? I continued letting the autopilot fly me toward Greenwood. I wondered if I should turn back. My headwind would turn to a tailwind if I went home. I could see the Indianapolis skyline ahead on my right and decided to continue on.

Then the pain began anew. This time, I was sure it really was a heart attack. I called Greenwood unicom and said I had a medical emergency and asked that someone call for help, but there was only silence. Then, the pilot of an aircraft in the landing pattern said he would call 911 as soon as he touched down. Someone at the FBO asked me to repeat, and the same pilot told of my medical emergency and said to call 911 immediately.

I was less than 10 minutes out and the pain continued to grow. I was drenched again, and it was hard to concentrate. I started a descent and went through my normal prelanding checklist. I announced that I would overfly the airport, then enter the pattern for Runway 1.

My voice was weak as I turned to the downwind. Slow to 85 knots, 10 degrees flaps, trim. Turning base and final, the runway looked more beautiful than any I had ever seen. I was starting to get slow, added power, and forced myself to concentrate. The speed drained off, the airplane settled. The landing was a bit fast and the nosewheel shimmied, but I was down, and made a left turn off the runway.

The lineman marshaled me to the nearest parking spot, and a local fire engine and ambulance were waiting with lights flashing. It was a great sight.

Switches off, door open. The EMTs pull me onto a stretcher. My brother Jack is there, looking anxious. It’s great to see him, but he can’t share my relief. I gave someone the aircraft keys to secure the airplane, and I disappear into the ambulance. Two EMTs set up an IV on my right arm and monitor my heartbeat from the left arm. The EMT on my left, an angelic young woman, shouts, “Hit it! We have a real heart attack.”

Five minutes later I’m at the St. Francis Hospital emergency room. They pull my clothes off and ask for my medical history. The cardiologist tells them to prepare me for surgery. An angiogram shows a 99-percent blockage in one artery, although later tests confirm that a surgical stent returned it to 100-percent flow.

My brother Jack has everything under control for me. The airplane is tied down and secure, and he’s gathered up my flight bag and personal possessions. My wife is on her way from Dayton.

Fortunately, my heart shows no permanent damage. Two days later, I am released from the hospital and my wife drives me home to Dayton. It’s another beautiful day as I write this—and I can’t wait to touch the sky again.

For years, I had feared that taking medications for marginally high blood pressure and cholesterol would keep me from flying. I had a real fear that the FAA medical system was there to rule against me every time I renewed. Such paranoid thoughts kept me from being more aggressive in considering a statin drug (I am now on Lipitor) to prevent the kind of cholesterol build-up that nearly cost me more than my flying privileges. I believe now, based on all I have learned, that the heart attack might never have happened had I been more aggressive in seeking remediation before it occurred.

Tom Cruse, AOPA 550053, is an instrument-rated private pilot who began flying in 1975 and has logged more than 1,000 flight hours. He owns a 1978 Cessna 172N and has resumed flying with a new third class medical certificate.

“Never Again” is sponsored by the AOPA Insurance Agency. Read this latest installment and other original “Never Again” stories published each month on AOPA Online.