One minute, a dozen or so members of Unity Life Center in Chantilly were enjoying their annual golf tournament in Fauquier County. The next, they were rescuing a stunt pilot whose aircraft had plunged upside down in a pond near the ninth hole.
Making matters worse, it was a vintage plane with an open cockpit, and the pilot — still strapped into his seat — was about to drown.
"The plane was flying very low," said church member Mike Fleming of Fairfax. "It looked like it was going to land on the fairway — and then it plowed into the water."
The tournament was at the Kastle Green golf course in Midland and, that same day, an air show was going on at the local airport next to the golf course. The crash occurred shortly before 5 p.m. Fairfax's Maggie Bukowski was on the ninth fairway and had just hit her ball. As she walked toward it, she watched the trajectory of the ball her husband hit.
"All day long, planes had been flying overhead, and you kind of got immune to the noise," she explained. "We didn't realize that one had gotten a whole lot closer until we heard a crash. This plane had flipped totally upside down — it was old and had an open cockpit. It was part of a flying circus — some of the people on other planes were doing wing-walking."
When the plane crashed, said Bukowski, "We all just ran — seven of us. There was a threesome on the green on the other side of the pond from where he crashed, and our foursome on the closest side of the pond to him." She arrived a split second before the others and instantly knew what needed to be done.
"I knew we had to lift the plane up because this man was upside down in the water," she said. "It was only waist deep where he crashed, but it was a blessing that he crashed where he did because it was 18 feet deep in other parts. And if he'd have crashed on the fairway, he'd have been crushed."
"Thank God, it was a pretty lightweight plane," continued Bukowski. "I started screaming, 'He's gonna drown — we've got to lift the plane.' And that's exactly what the guys did." Fleming, Chris Cottrell and Bruce Isaacson lifted the tail of the plane, and Bukowski, Amy Odhner and other church members helped. Jim Wohlgemuth and Bukowski both called 911.
"Me and my son Kurt were at the clubhouse, and I saw the airplane display out the window," said Wohlgemuth, of Centreville's Cabell's Mill community. "It was fabulous — all day long, we were watching them fly in and out of the trees." There were biplanes and other aircraft from WWI and after. The pilot who crashed was in a single-wing plane.
"I was watching him come down, and I thought he was gonna buzz my friends on the ninth hole, flip up and do a little stunt," said Wohlgemuth. "But instead, he crashed. The ninth hole is a dogleg left, with the pond in the angle of the dogleg, and he crashed right into it."
With the plane lifted up, Bukowski's husband Vic unstrapped the pilot, and he, Fleming and Leon Long pulled him to safety, dragging him up onto a bank. "He was in his 60s and was conscious," said Maggie Bukowski. "He had a bump on his head and a contusion on the top of his right hand; he didn't seem to have any other injuries. He was aware of his surroundings and was sitting up and talking."
The pilot told his rescuers he thought he'd run out of gas. "He said he knew he was running out, but thought he had enough gas to make it to the airfield next to the golf course," explained Wohlgemuth. "He said that, when he was under water and couldn't unstrap, he started to panic. Then he said, "All of a sudden, I saw the light and was surprised.' That was pretty neat."
Fleming said it was a hard crash and the pilot was "shaken up pretty good. The whole thing was surreal. He was very lucky that it happened when and where it did because he could have crashed too far out in the water — the pond was about 200 yards across — for us to reach him in time. Or he could have crashed on the ground and died. He had incredibly good timing."
Besides that, said Fleming, if he'd crashed 15 minutes later, there wouldn't have been anyone close enough to save him from drowning. "We were the last group nearby playing on the front nine," he said. "God works in mysterious ways."
Once the pilot was on dry land, the church members asked him if he was hurting anywhere, and he said he wasn't. Then they tried to make him as comfortable as possible, while waiting for paramedics to arrive. "We took off his leather aviation jacket because it was cold and windy and he was soaking wet," said Maggie Bukowski. "We covered him up as best we could with golf towels to keep him warm."
She said his plane was "ruined" and its wings were "all crunched" from the impact of the crash. "He thanked us several times for saving his life," she said. Bukowski said the pilot never imagined that, by evening, he'd end up "in a crisis situation in the murky, muddy water." Then paramedics arrived and took him to the hospital.
Wohlgemuth said the crumpled plane was "really an impressive sight. God was definitely on our side in that one." Bukowski agreed. "We thought it was total, divine order that we were there," she said. "[Otherwise], it would have taken somebody too long to get around to where he was, if he couldn't have gotten himself unstrapped."
Furthermore, added Wohlgemuth, "Because the pilot crashed in a shallow part of the pond and the two golfing groups [racing to his aid] immediately cooperated with each other, we were able to get him out alive. He was really, really lucky. But I also think there was a reason that we were there at that particular day and time. It was one of those amazing synchronicities — or miracles."
In fact, the pilot was released from the hospital, later that evening, and his rescuers have learned that he appears to be doing fine. Still, said Fleming, "It's the stuff of nightmares — the 'what ifs?' — and how close it came to being something tragic. We're just grateful that we were there and we were able to help him."