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No airline would ever hire meNo airline would ever hire me

The Logan Flood Story

The flight that would so alter Logan Flood’s life was upposed to be an unremarkable, early morning cargo run.

The trip from Lincoln, Nebraska, to rural Valentine in a Beech 58 Baron took place every Wednesday morning, and for Silverhawk Aviation flight crews, the delivery of medical supplies meant a 5:30 a.m. departure into the cold, winter darkness for a relatively short 90 minutes of flight pay. But for Flood, then a flight instructor, the trip was another step toward his goal of becoming a corporate or airline pilot.

In 2001, then 22 years old and a recent University of Nebraska graduate, Flood would ride in the Baron’s right seat on the first leg of the trip, a Part 135 charter. Then he’d switch to the left seat for the trip home under Part 91 and add to his total of 45 multiengine hours as pilot in command. After a few more familiarization flights, he would start making such flights on his own.

Flood also welcomed the chance to fly with Rajagopal Samasundaram, 29, a highly regarded corporate pilot and flight instructor who came to Nebraska by way of Singapore.

“Raj was one of the best pilots we had,” Flood said. “I only had about five hours in the Baron, and Raj had hundreds—so I knew he could teach me a lot.”

“Raj was one of the best pilots we had,” Flood said. “I only had about five hours in the Baron, and Raj had hundreds—so I knew he could teach me a lot.”

The two launched into early morning murk, and they soon started picking up traces of ice at their cruising altitude of 6,000 feet. A cold front was forecast to come through later that day, but the pilots expected to finish their flight well ahead of it.

“It was light rime ice,” Flood said.

“Every time I clicked on the de-ice boots, it fell right off.”

They went up to 8,000 feet, but the situation didn’t improve. Then they listened to the ASOS at their destination and it reported freezing rain—a grave danger to aircraft. The Baron they were flying wasn’t certified for flight into known icing conditions, and the pilots immediately altered their plan.

“We’re not going there,” Samasundaram said. “Let ATC know we’re diverting to Ainsworth.”

Ainsworth, a non-towered airport, was behind them on the route they had already traveled. About 45 minutes by car from Valentine, hospital workers could drive there to pick up the medical supplies.

Ainsworth’s weather was better: a ragged ceiling at about 800 feet and good visibility under the clouds. There was a VOR on the field, and a non-precision approach allowed IFR arrivals to descend to 500 feet above the flat farmland.

As they began a VOR Approach to Runway 17 at Ainsworth, the ice was getting thicker, and the Baron’s front windshield became totally opaque. Listening to the ASOS, the pilots heard a report of freezing rain and mist. But they were breaking out of the clouds and could see lights on the ground. They continued their approach hoping to get their ice-encrusted airplane to the runway as quickly as possible.

Flood activated the windshield alcohol system and watched the de-icing fluid trickle back and over the side windows. The flow stopped when the alcohol was gone, but the sheet of ice still clung to the windshield.

The airplane’s gear was down for landing. But the Baron was so laden with ice that it couldn’t hold altitude, even with full power from both 285-horsepower engines.

“We knew we were in trouble,” he said.

The To/From indicator on the VOR indicator flipped as the Baron crossed over the airport, and the pilots could see runway lights pass below them. Instead of climbing back into the icy clouds, Samasunduram started a left turn to circle back to Runway 17. He’d keep the runway in sight through the clear left side window.

“I felt the airframe shudder,” Flood said. “We were stalling.”

The airplane was in a slight left turn and just crossing over a farmer’s home when the bottom fell out. It was 7:04 a.m., and the sun was still below the horizon. Flood could see a harvested cornfield with rows of chopped stalks beneath them.

“I remember hearing the propellers hit the frozen ground,” Flood said. “That’s the last thing I remember before impact.”

That ambulance is for Raj

Flood regained consciousness still strapped in his seat. But the seat was lying on its side in the rear of the aircraft.

Samasundaram was slumped in the left seat, not moving.

Flood had been unconscious less than two minutes. But during that time, fire had torn through the aircraft and charred both occupants.

Flood didn’t know it yet, but second-and third-degree burns covered most of his body, and he’d eventually lose all, or part, of every finger on his right hand.

With great effort, Flood wriggled forward, still hooked to his seat.

The right door and most of the right side of the aircraft were gone, and the airplane was upright, with fire smoldering on the wings. The Baron had carried enough avgas to return to Lincoln without refueling, at least 60 gallons.

He tried to wake Samasundaram, but the pilot wasn’t breathing, and Flood couldn’t move him.

Flood untangled himself from the seatbelt harness and began stumbling across the cornfield, toward the airport where he hoped to find a phone to summon rescuers. He could see the airport beacon and runway lights about a half-mile away, but his progress was slow in the rain and darkness. His contact lenses had melted on his eyes, blurring his vision.

“I thought no one had seen us crash,” he said. “Then I saw two sets of headlights coming toward me.”

“I thought no one had seen us crash,” he said. “Then I saw two sets of headlights coming toward me.”

It was Brian Williams, the farmer whose home the plane had narrowly missed, driving a pickup, and Kendra Hallenbeck, who had been driving her own pickup to work when she saw the airplane fall.

“Is there anyone still in the airplane?” Williams asked Flood.

He told him about Samasundaram.

Then, with Williams and Hallenbeck assisting, Flood climbed into the passenger seat of her pickup and they began driving to a hospital. They moved slowly, about 10 miles an hour, because freezing rain made the roads dangerously slick. An ambulance went by in the opposite direction. Should they flag it down?

No, Flood said. “That ambulance is for Raj.”

Unknown to Flood, Samasundaram had already died. Williams and the emergency workers about to arrive at the accident site couldn’t save him.

As Flood rode to the hospital, he began to feel pain. Adrenaline was wearing off and the sun was rising. Flood could see his jeans were burned away, his sweater was melted, and his exposed skin was black and wrinkled. He was covered with mud and dirt, and since Nebraska farmers typically let cattle graze in harvested fields, Flood realized his burns were sure to become infected.

Flood shivered, a common physical symptom among burn victims unable to regulate body temperature. And he felt the onset of an unquenchable thirst.

“Hold my hand,” he told Hallenbeck. “I’m scared.”

‘I threw in the towel’

Flood’s parents, David and Lennette, had always supported his quest to fly, and they had encouraged him to live at home during college so that he could spend his earnings on flying.

When David, a truck driver, and Lenette, a homemaker, met their son at the hospital in Lincoln on February 7, 2001, they learned that in the cold calculus of burn victims a simple formula sets a patient’s odds for survival: Add their age to the percentage of skin burned and subtract that number from 100. In Flood’s case, 22 years old plus 65 percent burns gave him a 13 percent chance of living. And Flood’s doctors weren’t that optimistic because smoke had badly damaged his lungs.

The doctors kept Flood in a state of suspended animation for three weeks. During that time, Williams visited the hospital and wrote brightly in the guest registry that he hoped they could go flying together once Flood recovered. But when the farmer actually saw the young man, he almost regretted helping save his life.

“He was just struggling for every breath,” Williams said. “I wondered if he wouldn’t have been better off not having to suffer like that.”

When Flood opened his eyes, his hospital room was decorated with airplane pictures and family photos. His parents knew he was going to be there for months, and they wanted to make it feel as much like home as possible.

When Flood saw his own reflection, however, he began to realize how much his life had changed—and how long his road to recovery would be. Flood took stock of his future and realized flying  for the airlines was out of the question.

“I pretty much threw in the towel,” he said.

Have you tried?

“No airline would ever hire me,” Flood answered dismissively. “My appearance would scare the bejesus out of passengers. Get real.”

Flood began walking six months after the accident, several months ahead of schedule.

Then he went back to school and earned a pair of technology degrees. He got an information technology job but chafed at sedentary office work. He was determined to get back to the airport—even if he couldn’t fly.

Flood joined Duncan Aviation in Lincoln as a parts expeditor in 2006, and that rekindled his interest in flying. He had no hesitation about getting back in the cockpit after the crash, but he insisted on meeting his former standards.

He bought a quarter-share in a Grumman Yankee and was surprised to find he could still perform to ATP standards. He even flew to Ainsworth and took Williams for a ride—the one the farmer had hinted at in his cheery hospital note.

Flood resumed teaching as a CFI in 2007. He also began flying a friend’s Cirrus SR22 and was dazzled by the glass-panel avionics. While waiting for departure behind a regional jet, one of Flood’s flight students asked him a question that struck him as absurd: How come you aren’t flying for an airline?

“No airline would ever hire me,” Flood answered dismissively. “My appearance would scare the bejesus out of passengers. Get real.”

But Flood’s student persisted. Well, have you tried?

Tell him he’s got guts

Flood married Andrea Pflughaupt in 2004, a nurse he had met the previous year, and Williams and Hallenbeck, his rescuers, were guests at the wedding.

In 2007, the Floods had a son, Gavin.And Gavin’s arrival convinced Flood to pursue his own ambitions.

“I knew that one day, I’d have to explain to my son why I gave up on becoming a professional pilot,” he said. “I wanted to be able to honestly tell him that I had done everything I possibly could do to accomplish my goal.”

Flood posted a query on an aviation Web site that asked whether he had any real chance of becoming a professional pilot given his personal history and physical limitations. His inquiry generated scores of responses—some encouraging, others not.

After many months, Flood obtained a “statement of demonstrated ability” medical waiver from the FAA and a first-class medical, and he applied to several regional airlines. Republic Airways, a regional carrier that flies feeder routes for several major U.S. passenger airlines, was the first to grant an interview.

Flood was terrified before the meeting. Would the questioners see past his obvious physical disfigurement? Could he convince them that he could represent their company proudly?

“As soon as I stepped into the room, I could tell that they wanted to give me a chance,” he said. “That’s what I wanted more than anything.”

Flood got an invitation to begin training the next week. He was on his way to becoming a professional pilot—if he could make it through training.

In a flight simulator, Flood confronted one of the biggest potential stumbling blocks—operating the thrust reversers with his gnarled right hand. He found he could manipulate the levers with either hand, but not in the standard way. The absent fingers on his right hand required that Flood hold the ram’shorn yoke in the Embraer 170 differently, too.

Flood wasn’t sure his improvised methods would pass muster with his simulator instructor, or FAA examiners. But Marty Cupp, a veteran airline pilot and FlightSafety International simulator instructor who guided Flood through jet transition training, assured him there was no right or wrong way to hold the controls or move the levers. The regulations demand a certain level of performance from pilots, but they don’t spell out how pilots achieve it.

“Logan knows how to overcome and adapt, and that’s especially true in the cockpit,” Cupp said. “His dexterity is amazing. He’s a good stick, and he finds ways to make the airplane work for him.”

Flood, now 30, began flying regional jets in and out of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport in March 2008. He felt comfortable in the flying part of his new job almost immediately. But he was nervous about the reception he’d receive from crewmembers and passengers. His scars were as prominent as ever, and no uniform could hide them.

When flying with a captain he doesn’t know, Flood usually tells the story of his accident once the airplane is at high altitude and the workload light. He discusses it in a factual, low-key manner and answers questions with candor and even humor.

“I let people know it’s OK to ask,” he said. “It puts them at ease knowing they don’t have to tiptoe around the subject. I don’t mind talking about it.”

On a recent flight between Chicago and Denver, Flood flew directly over Ainsworth, the site of his 2001 crash. On a clear day, from 35,000 feet, he could clearly make out the north-south runway and the nearby cornfield where he had lost a friend, and where his own life had nearly ended. On a spring afternoon, the green peacefulness of the place was a refreshing contrast to his stark memories of it.

Passengers in airline terminals sometimes stare at Flood. And he steels himself for the day he says he knows will come when his appearance so unnerves a passenger that he or she refuses to ride with him.

But so far, the only comments Flood has heard have been supportive. A flight attendant told him one passenger took her aside to ask whether Flood had been injured in an aircraft accident.

When the flight attendant said yes, the passenger asked her to relay a message.

“Tell him he’s got guts,” the passenger said. “Tell him I admire him.”

Dave Hirschman

Dave Hirschman

AOPA Pilot Editor at Large
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Dave Hirschman joined AOPA in 2008. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates. Dave flies vintage, historical, and Experimental airplanes and specializes in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction.

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