When The Unthinkable Happens: A Memoir of Being a Witness to a Crash
Little did I know then just how prophetic those words would become in a mere four hours.
It was my second day on site at the inaugural New York Air Show at Stewart International Airport just outside of Newburgh New York. The original plan had been for the media to watch the arrival of the F-15 coming from Barnes Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts at 10:00 am. However maintenance issues delayed that arrival until much later in the day.
With air show practice not scheduled to begin for another two hours, we were given the chance to photograph the various aircraft that were parked at the various hangars and FBOs. About ten of us piled into a van and headed off to get our photos, while a few stayed behind. Our first stop was at the hangar shared by the Second Aviation Detachment (“The Wings of West Point”) and the New York State Police. Then we headed over towards Atlantic Aviation’s ramp where the six SNJs of the Geico Skytypers were parked.
Having obtained all the photos that we wanted, we were ready to move on. Before we went too far, however, we were asked if we wanted to see the aerobatic planes of Mike Wiskus and Andrew Wright, along with the P-51 that would be flying. “They’re still in the hangar, right?” one member of our group asked. Assured that they were, we decided to pass. Without any sunlight on them, and in the crowded confines of the hangar, good photographs would have been hard to come by.
We moved on to Airborne Aviation Services’ ramp. There, an L-39 that would be performing in the show was parked, along with the B-25 “Panchito”. We took our photos and talked to the pilots of both aircraft. The B-25 was giving rides, and I was offered a last minute opportunity to go flying. The caveat was that I would miss the practice sessions for the 4 jets that would be in the show. In my eyes it was a worthwhile tradeoff.
As I signed the necessary waivers for my flight at a little after noon, the Navy’s F/A-18 Super Hornet was practicing, and the Harrier demonstration followed. Meanwhile, we were waiting for all the preparations for our flight to be completed, as well as for a window when we could take the runway. We were finally airborne for our 35 minute flight at around 1:15pm. The flight itself was an awesome experience, but that is a story for another time. Upon our return to the ground, I was quickly whisked back the flight line where the rest of the media representatives were assembled. As the clock struck 2:00, three helicopters flew down the runway and into position as static displays for the show. Behind them, a tiny, carbon fiber low-wing monoplane taxied into position at the end of the runway.
Prior to this air show, performer Andrew Wright was unfamiliar to me. In writing an article on the upcoming show the weekend before, I had to Google his name to learn enough about him to write something. My lack of familiarity wasn’t due to Andrew being new to the air show circuit. Rather, he was just an unfamiliar performer in this part of the country. I would later learn that he was a part-time air show pilot, maintaining a full time job in the cyber security industry. Bitten by the aerobatic bug very early on in his flying career, Andrew had amassed over 1,100 hours flying his carbon fiber Giles G-202.
A resident of Austin, Texas, it was rare for him to travel this far to perform in a show. However with the Thunder Over the Boardwalk Air Show in Atlantic City just a few days after the New York Air Show, he felt the trip was worth his while. And Wright planned to make the trip a memorable one: as part of his performance in Atlantic City, he was going to attempt to break the world record for the most inverted flat spins in an aircraft. The current record is 81, and Wright claimed that he had already exceeded that number, albeit without the required official witness from Guinness.
But first, he had a full weekend of performances to complete in New York.
The Crash Sequence
With the airspace clear, the air show box belonged to Andrew Wright. As I chatted with a few other journalists, I watched the G-202 accelerate down the nearly 12,000 foot long runway. As he reached show center, roughly at the runway’s midpoint, he pulled up and went straight into a series of rolls that left me scrambling for my camera. I was too slow to catch that awesome opening maneuver, and had the wrong lens attached to properly photograph it anyway. I made a quick lens change as the conversation among the journalists continued, forgetting that my settings had previously been changed for the B-25 ride.
Most of the other media I was with didn’t have much of an interest in this performance, as it was outside the primary focus of their publications and websites. However I am a plane spotter and my writings are more broadly focused on the aviation industry as a whole. Having seen the opening maneuver, I thought to myself, “Wow, this guy really knows how to grab the crowd’s attention!” After Wright had made a few passes, I broke away from the conversation to watch the flying.
I’m not sure what made me decide to start taking photos, but the next ten frames I shot would prove to be some of the most significant shots I have ever taken. First came two shots of the aircraft up high and heading East, towards the Hudson River. It disappeared behind the clouds briefly, but before I knew it, it had reappeared in a dive towards the runway. I took shot number 3. As Wright pulled his aircraft level, I knew what was coming. I began pressing my shutter release, taking seven photos over the next 8 seconds.
The aircraft began to climb, and quickly went into an aileron roll. From this point, my perception of time slowed down remarkably. As the aircraft pulled out of its roll, it just seemed to stop in mid air. For what seemed like an eternity, the aircraft just hung there in a slow motion tumble. At this point, I put my camera down. I’m not certain what made me stop shooting at that moment, but it is likely that my camera’s buffer filled and I couldn’t take any more shots.
The stop in mid air didn’t surprise me or give me any indication that something was wrong. Performers of aerobatics have a way of controlling their aircraft in ways that seem to defy both physics and logic. It was what happened next that made me acutely aware that something was horribly wrong.
Wright’s G-202 emerged from the slow motion tumble, and began moving towards the spectator area. I knew this was not right. Aircraft performing aerobatics were never allowed to direct their energy towards an area with bystanders. This one was headed right towards the area that would be filled with thousands of spectators in less than 24 hours.
I suddenly knew what I was witnessing, and I knew this was not going to end well. I watched in awe and horror as this tiny aircraft seemed to move in a slow motion tumble several hundred feet over the spectator area. Then, suddenly, it seemed to stop moving horizontally and start moving downward in a spiral. “Pull out of it,” I thought to myself. “COME ON! PULL OUT OF IT!!!”
The aircraft disappeared below the trees. Simultaneously, I both hoped to see it rise back above them and expected to see and hear the sounds of disaster. I waited to see a fireball, and then a plume of smoke, and to hear a loud explosion. None of that ever came. Instead, from just over one thousand feet away came a muffled ‘thud’ as the aircraft impacted the ground.
The clock ticked over. 2:08 PM.
The Immediate Aftermath
I was, understandably, in a state of shock. The next pieces fell into place as I expected they would. While the public address system had not yet been set up in the vicinity, I could still hear it in the distance. Over it, I could hear Larry Strain, the air show’s narrator, reciting his ‘last page.’ “Everybody remain where you are. Emergency services are on the way.” And sure enough, there they went.
Aircraft rescue and firefighting (ARFF) duties at Stewart are handled by the New York Air National Guard. This is a remnant of the days before airline service began when the airport was a major United States Air Force Base. For the air show, the ARFF crews were augmented by professional firefighters from the West Point Fire Department (WPFD), located at the nearby United States Military Academy at West Point.
Prior to air show practice beginning, the ARFF and WPFD crews had deployed from their station house to various points around the airport. With large amounts of taxiway not only closed for the airshow but also physically blocked with fences and barricades, this was a necessity. Those barriers now posed something of an issue. The firefighting units were on one side of them, while the crash site was beyond both the temporary barricades and the airport fence. Most of the trucks ended up rolling towards the western end of the runway where parking would be for the show, before doubling back through a gate in the airport fence. A few others were able to exit through the air show’s main entrance.
As all this was happening, I knew I had to start getting the word out. I shot a quick text to NYCAviation founder Phil Derner Jr., “Crash here.” Then I got on Twitter.
There has been a crash at the @airshowny
— Benjamin Granucci (@BLGranucci) August 28, 2015
As I was typing, the show’s media relations coordinator calmly announced that the day’s activities had concluded, and asked us to get into the vehicles that had been shuttling us around all day. They took us the short way to the gate, and the driver informed us that we could wait near where we had met that morning. In a daze, we all wandered the short distance, past a line of vehicles waiting to deliver supplies to the show.
I found a shady spot and sent off a few more specifics of the accident to Phil. I also began messaging a friend who works for the FAA, letting him know what was going on. I also posted a few more tweets, sharing what little I knew, as well as what was going through my head.
Still trying to process what I just saw. Gut wrenching.
— Benjamin Granucci (@BLGranucci) August 28, 2015
As the rest of the journalists reached the assembly point, a few began to mention that they thought they had seen something fall from the plane just before it lost control. However nobody seemed to know for sure just what it was that had apparently fallen off.
My mind was overwhelmed with all of the thoughts going through it, and I was trying to come to grips with what I had just seen. In the midst of everything, I had forgotten just which aerobatic pass I had photographed. At this point, I thought I had captured one of the earlier passes. I wanted to share a photo of the plane performing, and I wanted to see its registration number.
My camera has a feature where I can view and download images I have taken on my iPhone, so I connected the two devices. I quickly scrolled to the most recent photos I had taken, and clicked on one that appeared to show the airplane. ‘Blurry’, I thought, and I flipped to the next one. That one seemed blurry too. I flipped to a third. That one looked crisp! I zoomed in for a closer look, and my jaw dropped.
What I saw was the aircraft inverted, with a large, black hole where the horizontal and vertical stabilizers should have been. I flipped back through the previous two photos. The parts that I had thought were blurry were actually the tail as it was breaking off from the fuselage. I quickly downloaded all three to my phone. I sent them all off to my friend at the FAA, knowing that they might help with the investigation. Then I picked the last photo from the sequence and posted it on Twitter.
The Media Comes Calling
Between my eyewitness tweets and now a photo, it didn’t take long for the media to begin contacting me. While it wasn’t unexpected, it quickly became overwhelming. Most frustrating was the bombardment of tweets seeking “a perpetual license to use my photo in all formats.” I reached out to Phil once again, asking if he could handle licensing my photos, which he agreed to do. I emailed him the 3 photos I had pulled off the camera. There was only one question now: sell them or give them away?
This wasn’t a decision I took lightly, but it was one I had to make quickly. In the end it came down to 1 thing: camera equipment is expensive. “Sell if you can,” I said. “If not, get them out there.” Meanwhile, high overhead a helicopter began to circle. I lifted my camera, squeezed off a single shot, and zoomed in on the built in screen. Sure enough, it was a newws helicopter.. It had taken them exactly 43 minutes from the moment of the crash to arrive overhead.
With my photos rapidly beginning to make the rounds in the mainstream media, interview requests started to pour in. Initially, I wanted to ignore them which was easy with requests sent through Twitter. Time spent giving interviews was time that I couldn’t spend gathering information myself. However I began to realize that we had reached the point where information was going to be slow to come. The phone rang and I picked up.
Through these first interviews, I found two things to be immensely helpful. The first was the excellent podcast “Airspeed”. Over the years, it has extensively covered what happens behind the scenes at an airshow. In particular, the three part “Inside Airshows” series took a look at what was involved in acting as ground crew, narrating, and performing in an air show. More recently, the four part “River Days” series chronicled the creation of a brand new air show from conception through completion, from the perspective of the organizer and air boss.
The second was my experiences as a part of NYCAviation’s crash coverage team. Through accidents such as Malaysia Airlines Flights 17 and 370 and Germanwings Flight 9525, I learned a few vital things. The most important was to verify everything. Incorrect information helps nobody, and may in fact give the family members of those involved false hope. To us, being right is far more important than being first. I turned on my filters and began choosing my words carefully.
The first two interviews I gave while still on site. At this early stage, everybody was still trying to gather information. I was asked who the pilot was. I explained that the plane was owned by Andrew Wright, but that I didn’t have confirmation of who was flying at the time. Then I was asked if the pilot had survived. I knew what I had seen and heard. I knew that it would have taken a miracle for that crash to be survivable. But I had heard nothing official about the pilot’s condition. “We haven’t been told yet,” I replied.
At this point, I was getting close to the time when I had to start thinking about leaving the airport. I had to be at work that evening, no matter what. Around this time, I began getting requests to do live interviews. FOX5 NY scheduled me to go live with them at the top of the 5:00 newscast. Then WCBS AM 880 called to do a live interview in a few minutes. I said my goodbyes to the other journalists, stowed my gear in my car, and put on my bluetooth headset.
The call came soon enough, and as I waited to go live, I listened as they reported what they knew so far. The only notable information came in a quoted statement from the New York State Police: the pilot had, in fact, been killed in the crash. I gave my live interview, followed by a couple more that weren’t live, as I made my way to the train station. My ninety minute ride to Midtown Manhattan would be filled with giving interviews. One of those in particular would stand out.
The Most Important Call
One of the requests I received through Twitter was from a reporter at one of the local newspapers in the Hudson Valley. I looked at her avatar and recognized her as one of the journalists that had been at the airport with me the day before. I dialed the number that she had messaged me, and quickly realized that this wouldn’t be like the other interviews I had given.
Amanda had been the passenger on Andrew’s media flight the day before. Not many aerobatic pilots fly two seat aircraft, but Andrew did and that meant that he could take a passenger with him when he wasn’t performing. He demonstrated a few different aerobatic maneuvers before handing over the controls and walking Amanda through her first roll. Just before departing on the ill-fated flight, Andrew had emailed Amanda the videos captured by the three cameras he had mounted to the plane.
We spoke about our experiences over the previous two days. Amanda talked about the incredible impression that Andrew had made on her, both as a person and as a pilot. I spoke about how impressed I had been that Andrew had managed to keep his damaged aircraft away from the people who were still setting up for the following day’s show.
Though we only spoke for a few minutes, the conversation provided a much needed release for the grief that had consumed both of us over the preceding couple of hours. And I think for each of us, the conversation helped to provide some missing information, helping us both to better comprehend just what had happened here. I know it really helped me. You can read Amanda’s account of her experiences here.
Recovery, Part 1
They say that people seek out entertainment as a way to escape reality. In my case, helping with an entertaining performance was going to be my escape. In my “day job”, I am a stagehand in New York City, working in a theater on Broadway. That night, just 4 hours after the crash occurred, I had to be at work to put on a show. As I walked through the stage door, I tried my best to focus on the show ahead of me, and not on the crash. Of course this is easier said than done when your photographs and interviews are already making the rounds of the local and national media. Nevertheless, being at work that night provided some much needed relief for me mentally. Also that night, for the first time in as long as I can remember, I had absolutely no interest in thinking about airplanes.
Just before showtime, I received a message from my friend at the FAA. He wanted to know if I could write a statement about what I had witnessed. After boarding my train for the 90 minute ride home, I began typing on my phone. Reliving the events of the day in such vivid detail was both difficult and therapeutic for me. In all, it took me about an hour to write the statement. Immediately after I sent it, I passed out, mentally and physically exhausted. For the first time in nearly a year of commuting by train at all hours of the day and night, I slept right through my stop.
Not long after the crash occurred, I began receiving messages of support from friends of mine. Each wanted to make sure I was doing alright. A couple had witnessed crashes themselves, and shared their experiences with how they coped. One recurring theme with those was that the memories of a crash, “stay with you.” Today, nearly a year after the crash, I can tell you that is 100% true.
Early the next morning, as I lay in bed trying desperately to fall asleep, I recounted everything I could remember to my wife. As a nurse, she was acutely aware of the signs of PTSD, and was concerned about me. “I’m fine,” I kept telling her, which looking back was not the truth. But I knew that I would be, that as the days went by, things would get easier. And they did. It was just a matter of me riding out the grief process.
The following day, I headed in to work to do two shows. By this point, the initial shock had mostly worn off, although I still had a ways to go emotionally. As I was riding in, I was contacted by a reporter with the CBS Evening News. They wanted to interview me on camera for that evening’s newscast. We hashed out the specifics of when and where the interview would take place, as well as what would be covered. That evening, I was on national news explaining that while accidents happen, the air show industry is focused on safety above all else.
On Sunday, I had scheduled a day off from work so that I could attend the second day of the inaugural New York Air Show. I rose early and was out the door about 90 minutes before the gates opened, even though I only lived about a 30 minute drive away. I wanted to beat the massive traffic that I knew from previous shows would inevitably form. And I wanted to grab a few more photos for a story idea I had, before the crowds began filling the grounds.
I drove to Stewart, encountering none of the feared traffic. Once at the airport, I followed the directions I had been given to the media parking area. As I parked my car, I paused for a moment, realizing that I was parked just a stone’s throw away from the crash site. By that point, the only signs of anything occurring there were the tire tracks running through the tall grass. Any debris had already been collected for investigation. The only other sign of anything occurring in this area was the 100 feet or so of green tarp that had been hung on the airport fence in that area.
Participating in the Investigation
As I roamed the relatively deserted air show grounds, snapping photos and sharing tidbits on Twitter, I received a message from Phil. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) wanted to speak with me. He passed on the number for the investigator on site, and I called him and we arranged a meeting for later that morning.
Doug arrived in the stereotypical black Chevy SUV with government plates, and he couldn’t have been more nice. He was based in the Eastern Region Office in Ashburn, VA, and had driven up to Newburgh to complete the on site investigation. We introduced ourselves, and then headed over to a nearby FBO that had offered the use of its space to the NTSB. As we walked inside, Doug briefly explained what it was that he was looking for from me.
As we sat down, I showed Doug the three photos that I had taken and explained the 10 photo sequence that I had of the plane. Since I didn’t have that memory card with me, we discussed how I could submit the original files to the NTSB. I also mentioned that I had written a statement for the FAA, and that I would submit that was well.
Next we began the forensic work on my camera. In order to line up what photos of the accident they were able to obtain, there was certain camera data that the NTSB was interested in. I affixed the lens I had used for the crash photos, and we got started.
First up, Doug wrote my name and the word ‘long’ on a white card. I snapped a photo at maximum telephoto. The process was repeated twice more, for minimum telephoto and something in the middle that didn’t line up with any of the focal length markings on my lens. These photos were to provide a baseline of focal length data, against which my photos of the crash could be compared.
Next, I switched lenses as Doug pulled up an atomic clock app on his smartphone. I snapped a photo of his phone to provide an offset of the time my camera thought it was as compared to the actual time. By doing this, the images taken by multiple photographers could be arranged in a timeline.
The final task Doug had for me was some homework. In Google Maps on my home computer, he needed me to drop a pin where I had been standing at the time of the crash. Then, he needed me to take a screenshot of that map as well as download the .kml file for that map. The .kml file would allow multiple maps of the incident to be combined.
Once all that was done, I sent Doug everything that I had. The untouched photos, pulled straight from my memory card in both RAW and .jpeg formats went into a dropbox folder. So did the screenshot and .kml file that I had created of my position. That link was emailed off , as was the statement that I had written a few nights before.
Nearly 2 weeks later, the NTSB published their preliminary report on the accident. In general, these reports are a summary of the facts that the initial investigation uncovered. They typically don’t get into the causes of such incidents, and this one was no exception. While reading the report, I was filled with a great sense of pride to read the following sentence:
It was truly a great feeling to see that my photographs, as well as those taken by others, had already played a small but vital role in the investigation. In time, perhaps a year or more from the accident date, the NTSB will issue a final report detailing the cause of the accident along with recommendations on how to prevent similar accidents in the future. I eagerly await that release, it will be an important piece of closure for me. At some point, the NTSB will also open their docket on the crash, and all of the photos and other documents should be available to the public.
Recovery, Part 2
I finished my interview with Doug a short while before the performances began, and made my way to the press area for the start of the show. When I arrived, I was greeted by Cathy, our media relations coordinator. She again expressed her gratitude for how I had covered the crash and related events. Sharing an informed, non-alarmist view was important, and I think we both recognized that.
Before long, it was show time. Following the performance of the national anthem while an American Flag was displayed by a member of the West Point jump team, a moment of silence was held in Andrew’s honor. And then it was time for the flying to begin. Mike Wiskus took to the skies in the Lucas Oil Pitts Special, and began his “teaser” performance.
As Mike performed, I found myself experiencing an odd sensation. Each time his aircraft’s nose was pointed in the direction of the crowd, I flinched a little. This despite the fact that there was never any energy directed towards the thousands assembled to watch. I quickly realized that what I was experiencing was fear. “Snap out of it!” I told myself. “He’s in complete control and you know it!” And yet, these maneuvers that Mike was flying were similar enough to the ones that Andrew had flown two days before that it made it difficult for me to accept that he wasn’t about to fly towards that audience. It also didn’t help that roughly 500 feet behind me was where Andrew’s aircraft had impacted the ground, a fact that I knew but I’m sure few others realized.
I focused my attention on what I knew was true, versus what my brain was trying to tell me. And you know what? Slowly but surely, it helped. Each pass became a little easier to deal with. By the time the military jet demonstrations rolled around that afternoon, I was enjoying the show just as much as I had enjoyed every other air show I had attended. Was this PTSD rearing its ugly head again? You bet your ass it was.
But you know what? Slowly but surely, I was conquering it.
The Months That Followed
As the days and months passed following that tragic day, the memory has faded a bit. It’s not that I remember the details any less vividly, or that the memories carry any less weight with me. It’s more that I don’t think about it as much now as I did in the immediate aftermath. But every once in a while, something will jog my memory of it. I’ll get a press release regarding the 2016 show, or I’ll be flipping through photos from the year in my editing software. Over the holidays, friends and family asked about it, in some cases only remembering that they had seen my name attached to photos in the paper. And of course, they wanted to hear all about it once they heard about what I had seen. Thankfully, It’s a bit easier to talk about these days.
I learned a few things in the wake of this crash. First and foremost, I learned that I am not bulletproof. I don’t consider my own PTSD to have been severe, but it was definitely there, and it definitely needed to be dealt with. Who knows if I will find myself dealing with it again down the road, but I’m fully aware that I might.
I also learned the importance of friends reaching out in a time of need. I am forever grateful to those who reached out and made sure that I was alright in the hours after the crash. They will never truly know how much that meant to me. They were vitally important in my own recovery.
The evening of May 27th, 2016 found me heading to the Northwest Hills of Connecticut to do some camping with my family over Memorial Day weekend. It was an annual tradition that, as always, meant that I would miss the Bethpage Air Show at Jones Beach. Arriving in town I made a quick check of Twitter, where reports were just beginning to pour in about an aircraft ditching in the Hudson River off the west side of Manhattan. Over the course of the next several hours, information that was at times conflicting began to flow in about the accident that had occurred. We would eventually learn that that the aircraft was a World War II era P-47D Thunderbolt named Jacky’s Revenge, which was owned by the American Airpower Museum in nearby Farmingdale, NY. The aircraft was participating in an evening photo flight with 2 other aircraft when it developed engine problems. At the controls that evening was Bill Gordon, an accomplished pilot and mechanic who devoted many hours to his love of aviation. He flew not only for the American Airpower Museum, but for Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, where he had served as both Chief Pilot and Chief Mechanic, among other roles. Bill was also the pilot of the lead aircraft in the Iron Eagle Aerobatic Team.
As the hours passed, early reports that the pilot had been rescued gave way to the revelation first that the pilot remained missing, and then that he had been fatally injured in the accident. As the devastating news began to spread, so did the tributes posted by those who knew Bill Gordon. One of those tributes was penned by Scott Snorteland, an NYCAviation contributor who had become friends with Bill over the years. Scott had previously photographed Bill’s flying in other air-to-air shoots. Ironically, one of those air-to-air photos was the one that didn’t make the cut in our air show preview that had been published the day before. I found myself reaching out to Scott that weekend, just as he had reached out to me 9 months prior, just to make sure that he was alright.
Lying awake in bed late that night, I came to a realization: I was now a member of a brotherhood of those who had witnessed air show crashes, and we had to take care of each other.
Ben Granucci, Standards Editor, is an aviation enthusiast and plane spotter based in New York City. Growing up in Connecticut, he has had his eyes toward the sky for as long as he can remember. He can be reached on Twitter at @BLGranucci or through his blog at Landing-Lights.com.
All photos by Ben Granucci, unless otherwise noted.