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For Washington Post reporter, airplane crash is only latest accident

A runway at Reagan National Airport has closed after a vintage airplane crashed Tuesday morning. The plane landed before pitching forward and rolling over. The plane was carrying the pilot and one passenger--a Washington Post reporter. They were not injured.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The wags and the naysayers are in rare agreement on this one: I jinxed Mike Truschel.

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Mike is a guy who can fly. No doubt about it. Thousands of miles in the air. A pedigree with The Flying Circus.

On the other hand, there are times when I soar and there are times when I crash.

It's all documented: Mike's prowess as a pilot. My history of violent encounters with asphalt.

On Tuesday, I became a part of Mike's nightmare. He took me for a spin in his utterly pristine, World War II vintage biplane, and we crashed.

Not just anywhere, mind you, but in the middle of the runway at Reagan National Airport as a dozen airline pilots or so looked on from the flight line, as video cameras were rolling and before an audience of airplane aficionados who gathered to celebrate the debut of a new movie: "Legends of Flight."

It was all sort of graceful, from the perspective of my seat just in front of Mike. The wheels touched down, a puff of white from the right wheel and then we flipped tail over head, to be left hanging upside down in our harness seat belts.

My very first thought: "That was interesting."

Mike will not look back on the moment as either graceful or interesting. He quickly dropped out of his cockpit and crawled up to check on me. I was fine. He seemed to be, too.

The 1943 Stearman aircraft, restored so beautifully that a fellow pilot put its value over $150,000, was crushed in the way that flipping over will mangle a thing of avian-like beauty. Its tail was crumpled and the aluminum prop Mike had pointed to with pride an hour earlier was curled up like a handlebar mustache.

Should I have told him about my crash history, I wonder?

There was the Studebaker (breaking leg, shoulder, head) that was my first smack down to the pavement, the Buick that tossed me onto its hood one morning (breaking ribs), the squirrelly rider who took down a bunch of us in a bike race (breaking hip) and the Miata cross-check that sent me and my bike cartwheeling down the asphalt (breaking ribs, shoulder, hand, wrist, neck).

Had Mike known that I was collection of screws, plates and gadgets, might he have asked for a less accident-prone passenger?

Mike's misery was shared by Dan McCue, a Southern California publicist with a knack for big-splash events to garner attention for his clients.

The first time Dan called me years ago I ended up on a 64-foot sailboat racing through the Atlantic as part of the Volvo Ocean Race, an around-the-world sailboat race. (Several of my crew members mutinied off Cape Hatteras, N.C., an uprising that Dan quelled with a tool unavailable to Captain Bligh: the cellphone.)

Dan's big idea to showcase "Legends of Flight" was to have eight of the classic Stearmans -- used to train generations of military pilots -- fly into National and wheel up before a select audience eating a catered brunch behind the classic glass facade of the airport. Then the whole group would go watch the movie, a 3-D IMAX production that will play at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and theaters nationwide.

Except for the flip, it went perfectly.

The flight down from a municipal airport in Manassas was spectacular. Eight little planes buzzing down the Potomac in two formations, banking above the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and then heading for landing. National radioed that the pilots could land on the runway of their choice. We headed for Runway 33, second in the row of Stearmans, then picked up some crosswinds and opted for another runway.

We somersaulted onto it.

As we crawled clear, sirens roared and in no time we were encircled with fire engines and emergency vehicles. Dan McCue emerged from one, a hint of paleness flashing beneath his SoCal tan.

Big airliners abandoned their aspirations of takeoff and trundled back to the gate for a while. Dan looked glum, Mike looked glummer.

A buddy of Mike's who piloted one of the other Stearmans worried that Mike might have a hard time climbing back in the cockpit. I hope he's wrong. I'd be happy to fly with Mike again tomorrow if he'd have me.

So, maybe I'm not a lucky charm. I survived. I just hope his plane does.

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