They had been flying for a half-hour when John Hicks noticed that the Cessna’s airspeed had dipped, so he mentioned it to the flight instructor. His teacher, sitting next to him in the cramped cockpit, pushed in the throttle, accelerating the aircraft with such power that Hicks’s head was rocked back. It was then that he lifted his eyes, peered out the windshield and saw what was directly before them in the darkness enveloping the George Washington National Forest: a mountain.
At more than 120 mph, the 2,500-pound plane sliced through a cluster of Appalachian hardwoods in a remote corner of northwestern Virginia. The tip of the left wing snapped off and the right wing struck a tree so hard that it streaked the trunk with red paint. Hicks heard metal rip, glass shatter, tree limbs break, the engine scream. And yet the Cessna 172, he realized, hadn’t stopped moving.
Then it did.
Hicks had longed to learn to fly since childhood, but he’d been convinced that people like him — who’d grown up poor, barely graduated from high school, worked blue-collar jobs — simply didn’t do things like that. He often took lunch breaks at airport parking lots just to watch the planes take off. Then two years ago, at age 50, his roofing business had done well enough that he could afford the $10,000 it would cost to get his pilot’s license — formally known as an airman certificate.
And so, on the evening of Nov. 8, 2014, already with 23 hours of experience in the air, Hicks and his German-born teacher, Bernie Charlemagne, had taken off from Frederick, Md., in what was supposed to be the student pilot’s longest flight to date. Instead, their small plane became one of more than 1,200 private U.S. aircraft to crash that year.
Seconds after the impact, Hicks opened his eyes. Through the ringing in his ears, he heard gurgling.
“We’re in water,” he thought, now afraid of drowning. “We’re sinking.”
The Cessna had slammed into a rock, leaving a metallic scar in the mountainside before sliding 20 feet down. Just yards from plummeting off a steep incline, the plane had been caught by an oak tree and settled with its nose straight down and its cracked tail pointed into the night sky.
To Hicks’s right, Charlemagne gasped for air.
Panic engulfed Hicks, even as he realized — by smell — that the gurgling sound he heard was fuel flowing out of the ruptured tanks in the wings. What if it caught fire? He ripped the key out of the ignition and switched off the yellow lights on the instrument panel. Hicks unbuckled his harness, but he remained trapped. The wreck was so violent that it had shoved the pedals beneath the seat, trapping his legs.
“I can’t breathe,” Charlemagne shrieked.
Hicks’s heart pounded. He had to get out.
He yanked on his blue Levi’s until he freed his feet, then crawled out and slumped onto the open plane door, now serving as a platform.
He inhaled. He exhaled.
It was nearing 6:30 on a winter night, and at 3,100 feet above sea level, the temperature on the mountain would soon approach freezing. His left foot, snapped below the shin, was pointed back to his knee, and his right foot had been crushed at the ankle. Inside the plane, the man to whom he had entrusted his life sounded certain that he was about to die. And soon Hicks would begin to fear that because of bad luck and worse judgment, they might never be found.
In a sense, though, what he faced that night felt familiar. Hicks had already endured a half-century of struggle, and none of it — not his tumultuous childhood, years of addiction or near collisions with death — had broken him.
Now he had to find a way to survive once more.
Hicks needed a plan.
He had just severed the harness around Charlemagne, who then slumped through the blown-out windshield with his feet still pinned beneath the seat.
“Get me out!” Charlemagne pleaded. But Hicks, strong and stout at 5-foot-8 and 185 pounds, couldn’t free him.
And now, as always, he focused on his next step. “What’s the plan?” Hicks would say so often that friends repeated it just to tease him.
He’d developed that obsession with what would come next because as a child he rarely knew.
His father, a mechanic, was a drunk who on especially bad nights beat Hicks’s mother, Margaret. When Hicks was 6, she left his dad and moved with him and his younger brother, Bobby, to an unkempt apartment in Silver Spring, Md., where the boys found cockroaches beneath their bunk beds and shared meals on a plywood slab laid across stacked car tires. To support her boys, Margaret took a job at the phone company that paid $75 a week.
Their poverty embarrassed Hicks, who hated when do-gooders left cans of food on their doorstep. He never did homework, but he did learn to fight and steal bicycles and, at age 11, drink alcohol. Around 15, after his mother had remarried, he drank so much Southern Comfort one evening that when he stumbled into the back yard vomiting, she called an ambulance.
The chaos in his life nearly killed him that night, and on many other occasions in the years that followed as he collapsed into drug abuse. What saved Hicks a decade later was a plan that led him to meetings where every night he introduced himself the same way: “Hi, my name is John. I’m an addict.”
Sprawled on the door of the wrecked airplane, he worked on another plan: We have to get off this mountain.
His cellphone had been clipped to a pocket of his jeans, but now it was gone, presumably crushed on the mountainside. Charlemagne’s was missing, too. Beneath a full moon, Hicks searched through two flight bags and found an emergency radio kit, but its battery had died.
Dread gripped him.
His fiancee, Michele Bossard, had left for Moscow on business, which meant only her son, JB, would notice Hicks’s absence. At just 13, would JB know what to do? Even if he did make a report, Hicks realized, JB was likely to tell authorities that the plane was headed to Charlottesville, the original destination. The boy did not know that the flight instructor had decided before takeoff that they would instead travel to Hot Springs, more than 60 miles west.
Charlemagne hadn’t filed a flight plan with the Federal Aviation Administration or, before leaving the Frederick Flight Center, written their intended destination on the whiteboard, as he usually did. The light to the plane’s emergency locator transmitter was on, but Hicks suspected its antenna had broken.
No one, he thought, would know how to find them.
Both men were quiet now, Hicks on the door and Charlemagne, 49, trapped upside down in a cockpit splattered with blood. They’d first met weeks earlier and flown together seven or eight times. To Hicks, Charlemagne was quirky but enthusiastic, a description used by many who knew him. Friends said he found his greatest joys in both teaching and learning. He’d studied politics in Washington and economics in London and had traveled through Europe, Africa and South America, developing a dry but charming sense of humor. His wife, Irene Mueller, supported his many passions — flying, camping, engraving, tinkering — and spent weekends with him at flea markets.
Hicks knew almost none of that about Charlemagne, but there they were on the side of a mountain, with the moon climbing higher and the night growing colder.
“I’m sorry,” Charlemagne told him. “I love my wife. I just want to be home.”
Then he said nothing more.
JB woke up at 11 that night, hours after he’d fallen asleep in their Monrovia, Md., home. He had expected Hicks back around 8 for dinner.
The teenager checked the garage and saw that their blue Dodge Challenger was still gone.
He texted and called, leaving messages: “John, if you get this, please call back.”
JB tried his mother but couldn’t reach her in Russia. He sat down in the living room next to their dog, Lulu, and began to cry.
His biological father had killed himself before he was born, and he had struggled with that reality for years. He was just 3 when his mother met Hicks, who had taught JB how to tie a hook to a fishing line, control his breath while aiming a hunting bow and taunt Flyers fans at Caps hockey games.
At their favorite Italian restaurant after JB’s basketball practice the night before, Hicks could talk about nothing but his upcoming flight.
And now JB feared that the man who helped raise him had died in a crash.
“Please, God,” he prayed, “let John be okay.”
He called 911.
His dad was a student pilot, JB told the dispatcher. He had flown that night but still had not come back. JB insisted, until investigators believed him, that something had gone wrong.
“I had already lost one father,” he said later. “I didn’t want to lose another.”
A chill swept over Hicks.
The temperature had descended into the 30s, and all that protected him were his jeans, a T-shirt and a thin Harley-Davidson sweatshirt.
Earlier, he had tried to toss Charlemagne’s jacket down to him, but it had landed on the ground beneath the plane’s nose.
Now Charlemagne was dead, and Hicks began to wonder what had gone so wrong. Their plane lacked equipment that could detect dangerous terrain, although not once had the flight instructor consulted an aeronautical chart for the area.
Investigators would later learn that Charlemagne did not take one on the flight.
Every small-aircraft crash is different. Of the 257 that led to deaths in 2014, many were due to pilots’ simply losing control, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. But that’s not what happened to Charlemagne: He had inadvertently flown an under-control Cessna into a mountain.
The accident would baffle the pilots who admired Charlemagne and the federal investigators who studied it. Charlemagne had nearly 6,000 hours of experience and, according to the safety board’s inquiry, had showed no signs of distress in the days before his last trip.
“If Bernie was flying, I would go to sleep. He’s conscientious, he’s safety-minded,” said Arthur Chausmer, a physician who knew Charlemagne through the Civil Air Patrol. “Everybody I know makes mistakes.”
But Charlemagne’s mistakes had cost him his life — and left Hicks fighting to escape the same fate.
After half an hour of fishing for his flight jacket with a tree limb, Hicks snagged it. It was wet with fuel, but he still put it on.
Fearing frostbite, he retrieved a white Nike tennis shoe that had come off in the cockpit. His right foot was so swollen that he had to loosen the sneaker’s laces. As he slid it on, his bones crunched. It felt as if he had stepped into a blender.
Still frigid, Hicks spotted a loose piece of carpet in the baggage area above him. He ripped it out and covered his lap.
He remained doubtful that anyone had reported them missing, and yet, he felt a peace. He’d faced death before.
At age 26, two months after he’d been caught driving drunk, Hicks returned to his Maryland apartment drunk again. He hated the person he’d become.
“Trouble,” he said, “just followed me everywhere.”
Hicks smoked PCP and chugged Jack Daniel’s. He slumped onto his hallway floor and put the barrel of a 9mm pistol in his mouth.
His finger curled around the trigger. Seconds passed, but he couldn’t squeeze. Hicks realized he wanted to live.
He opened a phone book and called the first substance-abuse hotline he could find.
During his recovery, a friend took him deer hunting for the first time. Hicks found refuge in the woods and soon began to share his passion at a hunter-safety course, where year after year he taught people how to face crisis. “STOP,” he repeated hundreds of times: “Stop. Think. Observe. Plan.”
But his expertise wasn’t all that buoyed him. Hicks was driven, too, by his sheer orneriness. He hated to relent, ever. “John’s an a-----e,” his brother liked to say, and Hicks never disputed it. That attitude had damaged relationships, including one with his adult daughter, from whom he was estranged, but it had also sustained him through a violent motorcycle crash, a recession that jeopardized his roofing business, and the constant temptation to drink or use drugs again.
And so, as his feet turned purple, Hicks concentrated on the night sky, refusing to acknowledge his body’s anguish. And while glimmers passed that he knew were probably satellites, Hicks signaled at them with flashlights for hours, refusing to just sit there. And when he heard the heavy footsteps of an approaching black bear, Hicks screamed and cursed and slammed the tree limb into the side of the Cessna, refusing to live through a plane crash only to die from a mauling.
Hicks made another plan, too: If he wasn’t rescued soon, he would start a massive fire; and if that didn’t work, he would make splints for his legs and rescue himself.
‘There it is’
The sun had just risen when Bob Shiflet’s pager began to beep.
“Aircraft incident,” the dispatcher said, so Shiflet left the northwest Virginia farm where he’d lived all of his 65 years and drove the one mile to the Clover Hill fire station.
Soon, he and another volunteer firefighter, Phil Hoover, headed out in the unit’s Hummer. Each had received calls like this before, but they seldom found anything.
“We kind of thought,” Shiflet said, “we were going on a wild-goose chase.”
Investigators had tracked the plane’s final radar contact, a signal from its emergency transponder and, most critical, a ping off Hicks’s cellphone, which had landed intact just 20 feet uphill from the wreckage.
“Air Force search and rescue is attempting to locate you,” said a message sent to Hicks’s phone at 5:31 a.m.
He had no idea.
Still, the search area was vast. Shiflet and Hoover drove to a clearing at the mountain’s top, then hiked into the forest.
Word that Hicks was missing soon reached his family. In Georgia, his brother, a former Army Ranger who had seen comrades killed in crashes, suspected that Hicks was dead. In Moscow, Bossard read an email and collapsed on the floor of her hotel room.
About 8 a.m. in Virginia, Nolan Dean, a retired locksmith, got a call from the Rockingham County Sheriff’s Office: A small plane may have gone down near him. The 67-year-old wheeled a Cessna 150 out of his spacious garage and, joined by a deputy, took off. He had planned to ascend to 5,000 feet and fly in widening circles, but as the morning sunlight washed over a distant mountainside, something shiny caught his eye.
Through leafless trees, the wrecked plane came into view.
“There it is,” Dean said, relieved that they’d found it so quickly but certain no one could have survived the crash.
Dean was soon joined in the air by an Air Care helicopter. Nearing the wreckage, the crew spotted movement.
Zeb Lilly, a paramedic onboard, was stunned.
“We’re being signaled by a survivor of the crash,” the 33-year-old radioed to the rescue teams on the ground.
With the coordinates recorded, both aircraft left.
On the ground, Hicks was convinced the plane and helicopter crews hadn’t seen him.
“That,” he said, “was the epitome of despair.”
News of a survivor invigorated Shiflet and Hoover, who drove halfway down the mountain, where a Rockingham fire captain had mapped a path to the site.
The pair set off around 9, faced with a brutal mile-plus hike up a 30-degree slope. Every four minutes, their radio sent a signal to the firefighter tracking their course.
“Bear left,” he told them again and again.
Hicks heard voices in the distance. He screamed and whistled, but no one replied. What if, even now, they couldn’t find him? The thought was overwhelming.
Then, suddenly, Hoover appeared from around a wing of the plane.
For a moment, Hicks struggled to process it. His chest pulsed. Finally, he smiled.
Was he okay, the firefighter asked?
Both of his legs were broken and maybe an arm, Hicks told him.
Had anyone else survived?
“Bernie didn’t make it,” Hicks said, and at last he began to sob.
Two years later, Hicks shuffled across the driveway and eased into a white Chevrolet TrailBlazer.
Around both ankles, which he could no longer bend, were white streaks from two surgeries that left cadaver bone with eight screws in his left leg and two titanium plates with 14 screws in his right.
“Today is not a good day,” he said. “The cold, I can feel it.”
Usually, Hicks carried a purple pill case packed with Celebrex for arthritis, Lyrica for nerve damage and Percocet for the ache in his legs and his back, because two vertebrae had cracked on impact.
But Hicks needed a new painkiller prescription, so he had returned to Maryland from his home in Florida, where the warm weather allayed his discomfort.
He turned onto Interstate 70, and as the SUV cleared a line of trees coated in fall foliage, the Frederick airport appeared on his right. Hicks glanced over, as he always did. Goosebumps coated his skin.
The nightmares had begun in the hospital. Sometimes, he imagined being trapped in the cockpit again. Other times, he heard Charlemagne’s voice.
He would wake suddenly, gasping and with eyes wide. During his two weeks in the hospital, Hicks asked his fiancee and brother never to leave him alone.
Charlemagne’s wife called him there, and Hicks recounted her husband’s last words. It was the first time Bossard had ever seen him cry.
The crash emotionally rewired Hicks. On his boat dock in Florida, he would catch himself breaking down at the thought of his mother, who died 11 months after his rescue, or his daughter, with whom he still hadn’t reconciled.
He pulled into his doctor’s office and limped inside, where a nurse tested his blood pressure.
“It says I’m going to live, right?” he asked, then laughed.
“Yes, you’re going to live,” she said, smiling.
Humor, he had found, was therapeutic. In disagreements with Bossard, he liked to play the “plane-crash card” for sympathy. “Nothing,” he’d argue, “trumps that.”
“I’m just grateful to be here,” he often said, as much for himself as anyone else.
After his rescue, it took him three months to walk again and a year, with the aid of a cane, to go with JB to a Washington Capitals game. On some mornings, his feet throbbed with such intensity that he needed 20 minutes to get from the bed to the bathroom.
An insurance settlement from the flight center allowed him to pay off his more-than $200,000 in medical bills, move to Florida and buy a boat and a Sierra Denali pickup.
Doctors told him he’d never work on roofs again, so he started a company, South Florida Arms, selling guns. Business is slow, but he hasn’t given up.
Hicks got his prescription from the doctor and drove toward home. On the way, he took a detour, pulling into a parking spot that faced the Frederick runways. On a chain-link fence in front of him hung a tattered, windblown sign: “LEARN TO FLY.”
“I think I’ll never do it again,” he murmured.
Hicks couldn’t pilot a plane while on such powerful medications, but he still loved the idea of flying. That feeling had brought him back to the airport time and again.
Hicks watched a man walk toward a four-seat Piper with a maroon underbelly. He nodded at it.
“I flew that with Bernie,” he said.
Hicks had memorized what came next: preflight check, radio the tower, taxi to the runway.
A different plane took off, then another and another. Hicks waited. At last the Piper sped down the runway and lifted into the air, soaring toward a cloudless blue sky.
Angela Fritz and Magda Jean-Louis also contributed to this report.