For signed copy of
Near Dekalb, Texas, 1985
L.B. Barrett and his son, Randy abandon their cattle in a nearby field and rush to the airplane. What they find is astonishingly surreal – the airplane, badly damaged and smoking angrily, is resting incongruently upright on its landing gear, the left engine running as though ready for take-off, minus wings and full of fire. The pilot, his skin and clothes charred, falls from the left side cockpit window, picks himself up and runs away from the burning machine toward the Barrett’s. Before they can speak he frantically barks orders: call the fire department; there are more people trapped in the plane; we need ambulances; Life Flight. As they try to calm him, the co-pilot, hideously burned, appears like an apparition, walking toward them through the tall grass.
Donald Lewis rushes up on his John Deere and is greeted by the explosion of the airplane’s overheated tires. Seconds later, Don Ruggles lands his private helicopter near the crash. He, too, has witnessed the horror, but from the air.
Oblivious to his injuries the pilot provides his wife’s phone number for Lewis with orders to call her immediately and let her know he is ok, then returns to sit with his horribly burned co-pilot on a slight hill nearby.
They watch, helpless, and in agony as fire screams like blowtorches from every opening in the fuselage. What they – and only they – know is, when firemen arrive, they will find inside the smoldering hull the remains of the man for whom the phrase “Teen Idol” was invented, along with his fiancé and every musician in his popular band: Rick Nelson and the Stone Canyon Band.
As they hear the first ambulance coming down the
road, the pilot turns to his co-pilot with
a final urgent order: Don’t tell anyone about the heater.
“IF I LEAVE HERE TOMORROW…”
October 20, 1977, Gillsburg, MS
Rescuers slog through the muddy slush, weaving through the ghostly dancing shadows cast by the brilliant light of the helicopters hovering over the crash site. In the thrashing wind and thunderous roar beneath it, they find a gruesome swath of airplane parts and people - more than two dozen dead, dying and desperately injured. They fight their way through the debris and muck to the front of the wreckage, and find the nose cone. Inside both pilots are dead. Just below the pilot’s window is a freshly painted logo that reads, “LYNYRD SKYNYRD”.
At the edge of the swamp car radios blare the bulletin: the hottest touring rock band in the world, the hard drinking, hard living, bad boys of Southern Rock have crashed in a Mississippi swamp. Five people, including founder and front man Ronnie Van Zant, are dead.
Disc jockeys around the world break format to pay tribute. Universally they begin with the mournful guitar of the Southern Rock anthem, Freebird and Ronnie Van Zant’s opening lyric, “If I leave here tomorrow, will you still remember me?”
John Denver closes the bubble canopy and muffles the outside roar. Snug in the fighter-jet-like cockpit, he tunes the aircraft radio to the ground control frequency and keys the microphone, identifying himself by the Long EZ's “N” number - N555JD - which Denver had specially requested from the FAA to incorporate his own initials.
Denver: Ground (control) this is,
uh, five five five Juliet Delta at the big hangar at, uh, Delmonte East.
(Request permission to)Taxi for take-off with information.
Denver taxis the Long EZ to the end of runway 28 Left – the west departure runway. He completes his final “pre-departure” checklist then dials in a different radio frequency to call the airport’s Control Tower and keys the mic again.
Denver: Tower, this is Long Easy
triple five Juliet Delta, ready for takeoff, two eight left. Like to
stay in the pattern and do some landings, touch and goes.
Denver waits on the taxiway and watches another airplane touch down, roll to the far end, and exit. The Tower calls Denver and tells him move his airplane onto the runway and await instructions.
Tower: Long Easy five Juliet Delta,
runway two eight left, taxi into position and hold.
Denver eases the throttle forward. The small plane creeps to the centerline of the runaway and pivots west toward Monterey Bay. He stops and waits. In front of him, beyond the canopy, nose cone, and canard, lays a mile and a half stretch of runway, and beyond that a place in the distance where the blue Pacific blends seamlessly with the autumn sky, all of it bathed in the amber glow of late afternoon. It’s a beautiful day to go flying.
Copyright 2004 Rich
Everitt All Rights
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