The crushing pain radiating up from my legs yanked me out of unconsciousness. My arms dangled above my head and my hands rested on the overhead panel of the aircraft. Comprehending I was upside down was difficult to grasp with the fear of blacking out again threatening to overtake me.
I yelled and squirmed in an attempt to stop the slide into nothingness and to relieve the agony in my legs. Neither relaxed the all-consuming pain. If anything, my thrashing sharpened it.
We were on approach to Dallas-Fort Worth when… what? Nothing came forth that explained why I’d be upside down and in such misery. A black hole occupied my memory of what happened between everything being normal as we approached the runway and… now.
Wind whistled through the smashed cockpit windows, ruffling my hair. Shards of glass littered the overhead panel. Smoke that stank of burned jet fuel and something else I couldn’t place drifted in.
Where there’s smoke, there’s… Fire! I had to get the flight attendants and passengers to safety! Then a realization hit me. We had been ferrying the empty aircraft from a maintenance facility in San Salvador.
Ned! Why hadn’t the first officer, who had been the pilot flying, made a sound?
When I looked across the cockpit, I shrieked.
The overhead panel had bowed in and crushed the forty-something husband and father’s head backward at an extreme angle against his headrest. A lifeless eye bulged from his distorted, bloody face. It stared straight ahead.
The laid-back pilot with a dry sense of humor looked like a ghoul from a Hollywood movie.
How could he be dead? He’d been joking with me just moments ago.
To distance myself from the sight, I squeezed my eyes shut while fumbling for the seatbelt buckle of my five-strap harness, then hesitated. If I released it, I would plant my head into the overhead panel, which was filled with numerous toggle switches. Even if I didn’t impale on a switch or break my neck, the agony in my legs made me question if I could work them enough to crawl from the aircraft.
I risked a glance. Whatever had happened to us had bent the instrument panel down, trapping my lower extremities under it. The femur in my right leg poked out through a tear in my pants. A constant stream of blood ran from the tip of the broken bone.
I recoiled, and the bone moved.
An intense spike of nausea erupted, emptying my stomach. Vomit burned my throat, ran into my eyes, and up my nose.
I swiped my face with my arm to clear my vision. This movement sent a wave of blackness rolling through me. A part of me welcomed it to end my misery. Another part worried I wouldn’t ever wake from it. I couldn’t leave my wife, son, and daughter.
The sounds of large diesel engines approached. Air brakes hissed. Were they from the crash and rescue trucks?
“Help.” My cry was a gurgle from the vomit in my mouth. I spit.
The smoke outside was now so thick, I couldn’t see the ground. Would they find me before I was consumed by fire? “Help!”
I didn’t detect any movement or hear any voices. I would not become a victim. I had to get out.
A stabbing pain in my side had grown in intensity, making it harder to breathe. When the yoke was rammed into me, had it broken a rib or my sternum? Punctured a lung?
A shove on the yoke to move it forward proved futile.
With a heave, I pushed against the edge of the glareshield, normally at shoulder height but now waist level, hoping to ease the pressure against my chest. The crushing force didn’t slacken.
It also intensified the torture in my legs. I doubted a chainsaw cutting into them would hurt worse. The bellow I unleashed didn’t summon the strength needed to distance me from the yoke.
I sat as still as I could, panting.
The gulps of air I took didn’t relieve my shortness of breath.
If I could slide the seat back, I might breathe easier and free my legs.
Why hadn’t I thought of the seat adjustment lever?
Twisting to yank that lever at the base of my seat felt like a knife stabbing my chest. With my free hand, I shoved on the crushed instrument panel. The intensity of the torment was so great, I almost blacked out.
If I did, I might either bleed or burn to death.
Through gritted teeth, I pushed on the glareshield yanking on the seat adjustment lever. When I didn’t move, I unleashed a howl.
I stayed rammed against the yoke.
When I attempted to shove with my feet, unimaginable agony consumed me, bringing on the darkness I’d been fighting.