Surviving an Airplane Crash:  Two Weeks Later


Ilan Reich

July 15, 2005


To my family and friends:


Two weeks have elapsed since my Cirrus SR22 crashed into the water near the Hudson River at Haverstraw, NY on June 30, 2005.  Most of the events since then have been favorable.  Here’s an update:


·        The compression fracture in one of my lumbar vertebrae is healing very nicely; so much so that I no longer need either the brace or the pain medication.  The x-rays, CT scans and MRIs reveal that the relatively minor compression of the bone is stable.


Here is an image from the Internet of a somewhat comparable example:



The muscles of my lower back (six inches below the fracture) are still somewhat strained, and I sometimes have difficulty finding a comfortable position when lying down.  But the orthopedist tells me I have every reason to expect a full recovery in the next few weeks, although I’ll forever be infinitesimally shorter (maybe 1/16th of an inch).  I’m walking several miles a day and being extra careful to not bend my back just yet.


·        The tumor which led to the seizure and blackout preceding the crash is not technically a tumor of the brain;  rather, its a tumor of the tissue in the lining of the brain, or a meningioma.  It is located on the left side, just off the centerline, directly over the brain mass that controls motor and sensory functions for my right side.  It is at least five years old, medium in size (roughly 3.5 centimeters, which is larger than a golf ball), and is growing at the rate of half a centimeter per year.


Here is an image from the Internet of a somewhat comparable example:




My tumor is “benign” in the sense that it has not invaded other organs or tissues (nor is it likely to); but in every other respect I consider it to be insidious and evil.  Just yesterday I experienced a 45 minute bout of numbness and partial loss of motor control on my entire right side; without the anti-seizure medication (Dilantin) the tumor would certainly have gained the upper hand and triggered a seizure.  In response to that event, the Dilantin dosage was increased and the level is being monitored with a blood test.


·        Because the tumor is large, growing and triggering symptoms, it must be removed.  I am scheduled for surgery at Columbia University Medical Center on Tuesday morning, August 2; although it may get done sooner if an earlier time slot arises.  The surgery will take several hours and will be performed under conscious sedation, rather than general anesthesia, which should help facilitate a short recovery period.  Because of the size and location of my tumor, it is not a candidate for non-invasive radiation therapy. 


Thanks in advance to everyone for their good wishes; but if you’re planning to send flowers or a gift please consider making a donation to Angel Flight instead:  as I learned firsthand from flying nearly 150 missions over the past two years, there’s no end to misery in this world and there are multitudes of people who are far less fortunate than me.


·        My airplane sank in 30 feet of water; it was lifted out, dismantled, inspected by the FAA and Cirrus, and shipped off to an aircraft junkyard in Delaware.  The NTSB is not planning to do an investigation, since there were no mechanical reasons for the crash.





While the damage in this photo appears minimal, I’ve been advised by the insurance company that it will be declared a total loss.  The plane sat for two days in salty water (that section of the river is a tidal estuary from the Atlantic Ocean), so presumably the engine and avionics are beyond repair. 


The pilot’s seat and the parachute were removed and send back to their manufacturers for analysis and research on future airworthiness improvements.  Both performed quite admirably:  I’m told that the honeycomb structure embedded under the seat cushion now contains a very deep impression of my butt; and that the parachute had a small rip (probably from the recovery process).  No doubt the thoughtful engineering and durable crash-safety design by Cirrus and BRS spared me from serious back or spinal injury.


When the wing was removed, visual inspection revealed damage to several elements inside the wing structure. This happened either from the force of the impact into the water, or in the air during the descent (when the airspeed was above “never exceed” speed for probably 10-20 seconds). My guess is the later, since the momentum of a 3,000-pound plane hitting the water at 10-15 mph is probably within the performance envelope (note the minimal damage to the top left prop when it hit the water); whereas anything above the “never exceed” is likely to spell trouble.


·        I am still wrestling with the psychological aspects of surviving the plane crash, and probably will be for some time.  For the first four days, even a small pain would trigger an uncontrollable flood of emotions by forcing a replay of the worst memories of the crash:  struggling to avoid the fuel tanks; hitting the water and seeing it rise to the top of the windows; realizing that the door was jammed and breaking the window to climb out; learning in the emergency room that I have a brain tumor. 


Since then, I am sleeping soundly and have gained some distance both from the worst events of the crash, as well as the physical discomforts that trigger the traumatic memories.  Having the support and love of hundreds of people has helped cushion the pain considerably, but it is still there lurking just beneath the surface; just like the tumor is lurking beneath my skull. 


I wish the surgery could take place right NOW:  I am that certain it will alleviate the root cause of all of the trauma and begin to restore my equanimity with the world.