'Think twice; no shortcuts'

Accident survivor now teaches flying

January 24, 2013

matt cole and josh kem

CFI Matt Cole recently participated in a happy aviation tradition when one of his students, Josh Kem, soloed for the first time on his sixteenth birthday.

It’s been a packed schedule for flight instructor Matt Cole lately as he teaches seven students to fly in a variety of Cessnas and Pipers for Crabtree Aircraft at Oklahoma’s Guthrie-Edmond Regional Airport.

Weather permitting, he logs about 10 hours a week in the right seat, while also working for a local real estate company and on occasion flying his own Socata TB20 Trinidad.

On Jan.8, Cole participated in a happy aviation tradition when one of his students, Josh Kem, soloed for the first time on his sixteenth birthday.

That occasion will provide Kem with a lifelong memory. For Cole, 35, the accomplishment stands in testimony to a personal triumph over challenges of a kind that that few must face, let alone overcome to such an inspired degree.

On Friday, March 16, 2001, Cole was a 23-year-old flight instructor with his eyes on an airline career when he strapped into the right seat of a twin Piper PA34-200 Seneca for a company standardization flight for new-hire instructors at Flagler County Airport near Palm Coast, Fla. His employer, acting as check pilot, was in the left seat. Another company pilot occupied a passenger seat.

Cole was flying the twin in the traffic pattern for his final landing of the session when the check pilot decided to simulate an engine failure.

“On the last landing he turned off one of the fuel selectors in the pattern, at pattern altitude,” Cole said in an AOPA interview. “I didn’t catch it. I was coming in to land, and he let it go way too long. We got behind the power curve.”

Cole remembers struggling to keep the settling Seneca from snapping out of control as it sank toward the ground on final approach. The airplane hit flat on its landing gear, touching down about three-fourths of a mile short of runway 24. The aircraft struck trees, and the impact punctured the fuel tank on Cole’s side of the airplane.

The fuel exploded.

A young motorist driving on a nearby road had seen the aircraft struggling at treetop level, and then crashing. He raced to the scene, taking off his shirt to help “put me out,” Cole said.  

Paramedics arrived quickly, and the other occupants also were rescued, seriously injured. The back-seat passenger would tell investigators that he “could see the right engine fuel selector in the off position,” according to the National Transportation Safety Board’s accident report.

Cole awoke in the hospital thinking that it was Monday. He remembers feeling surprised that he had spent the entire weekend unconscious.

But it wasn’t Monday, March 19. It was two months later, and Cole had been in a medically induced coma while he underwent a series of operations for the third-degree burns that covered 65 percent of his body.

“I had to learn how to walk again, I had to learn basically how to do everything again,” he said.

Six months and 20 surgeries after the crash, Cole was able to leave the hospital. Over the next eight years, he would undergo 50 more operations, many at the Grossman Burn Centers for reconstructive procedures. Other operations would be performed to try to restore use of his badly burned hands.

Five years after the accident, the decision was made to amputate one arm slightly below the elbow. Mastering the use of a prosthetic device became the next phase of Cole’s continuing recovery.

As his rehabilitation progressed, something that had seemed unthinkably out of reach had begun to occupy Cole’s thoughts: returning to aviation.

“I wanted to get back in,” he said

At first, “I never even thought it would be possible. I couldn’t even take a shower for myself the first couple of years.” But by 2009, he was nurturing thoughts of flying again—and he already had defied some experts’ expectations about his prospects.

After the accident, “some doctors were very negative. They wanted to amputate both my arms right away,” he recalled.

Overcoming an initial wave of trepidation, Cole started flying again. With aid from a medical advocate, and with cooperation from a “helpful” FAA that he described as “utmost professional and good to my mom” throughout his ordeal, he began a bid to reacquire his medical certification.

The agency wanted to inspect the entire medical record of his post-accident treatments, but by 2010, his efforts culminated in a successful checkride for a statement of demonstrated ability that restored his pilot privileges.

Satisfying, but Cole’s comeback remained incomplete.

“I had always loved instructing and teaching,” Cole said

That would point the way to the next goal of recovering his lapsed flight instructor’s privileges.

Two years later, Cole regained his instructor’s certificate, and since July 2012 he has taught flying at the airport in Edmond, where his mother and his physician father relocated from Los Angeles, Calif., in 2003, in search of a change of pace.

“One of my students is my father,” he said.

Not all the family’s flying is of a teacher-and-student nature. Cross-country trips to visit Cole’s sister in California are part of the family flight plan in the comfortable cabin of Cole’s TB20, an aircraft that he says is ergonomically well suited to his needs.

In the day-to-day routine at the airport, Cole doesn’t particularly go out of his way to discuss what he has been through, only broaching the subject with aviation newcomers if someone asks.
He participates in safety seminars when the opportunity avails itself, as would any good role model for a local aviation community.

Newly soloed Josh Kem knows the story. He spoke confidently about Cole’s skills, and admiringly about the effort Cole makes to share aviation.

“He’s doing it again, that’s pretty neat. He must really love flying,” said Kem, who by late January had tacked few more hours onto his solo time in the Piper Cherokee he flies with Cole.

If there’s one thing Cole can’t overemphasize about flying the Piper, Kem said, it is to “make sure the fuel gauges are in the right place.”

Good advice for any student pilot. Cole was asked for any other reflections he would offer his fellow aviators.

“Think twice, and don’t take any short cuts,” he said.