Jason Flood slowly emerges from the fog of a medically induced coma: An almost imperceptible movement of an arm, the opening of an unfocused eye. Then, eyes scanning the hospital room for a familiar face, a slight pressure against a hand held, slowly moving lips, a kiss returned.
Sedatives that kept him unconscious for three weeks fade ... then, suddenly, awareness.
“I remember looking at things, like ‘these are my hands,”’ says Jason, nearly six months after an aircraft accident he still can’t remember.
His parents, the first faces Jason remembers seeing at his bedside late that August, make vague references to “the accident,” but nothing more. They know what he doesn’t:
Jason had been attempting to hook a banner from a field in Egg Harbor Township on Tuesday, Aug. 2, when the plane he was piloting crashed. He awoke after nearly a month of life-saving surgeries. But at this point no one knows if the 20-year-old stunt pilot will walk, or fly, again.
* * *
Scars mark Jason Flood today. A pink discoloration stretches up from the ridge of his nose across his left eyebrow. A pink dimple at the neck line marks where doctors performed a tracheotomy. There is a stiffness to his gait caused by his injuries. His voice still has a slight boyish drawl, but there’s a gravel that wasn’t there before.
His left kidney and spleen were removed due to internal bleeding, and his lacerated liver required surgery. He had a torn aorta. His crushed lower spine was fused with plates and screws. His right femur and tibia were rebuilt using titanium rods; his right ankle was shattered. His left heel, hand and wrist were fractured. For weeks after he was stabilized, Jason suffered pneumonia.
With a tracheostomy tube in his windpipe to assist breathing, Jason couldn’t communicate with family, friends and nurses who came and went during the first few weeks he was awake. But they found ways.
The first attempt was a dry-erase board. Jason struggled to grip the marker, before giving up.
“We’d look at the board and say, ‘Ooh, what is he trying to say?’” said his mother, Janet, a certified medical assistant. “He was very frustrated he couldn’t write what he was thinking.”
A donated iPad helped.
“I want to go back to Oshkosh,” he scrawled across the touch screen, referring to the air show he had attended the weekend before the crash.
Several days a week, Keith Arnao, a 55-year-old pilot from Hainesport, Burlington County, would ride a borrowed bicycle to Cooper University Hospital in Camden to see Jason. Arnao’s father, Lou, 82, of Burlington, said his son would talk to his young friend about flying. Arnao had abandoned cancer treatments that summer so he could continue to fly. He was with Jason at Oshkosh.
“They were really close,” he said. “He’d talk about this young kid and the way he could fly that plane made other pilots jealous.”
* * *
When Jason isn’t fading in and out of consciousness, fielding visitors or undergoing surgery, his mind wanders to the three-week hole in his life.
“I’ll never know what happened for those three weeks,” he says. “When someone says ‘live life to the fullest,’ there will always be a piece I didn’t live.”
With limited information gleaned from family and friends, he tries to reconstruct the events of the crash and its aftermath from his hospital bed. His first conclusion is that he crashed somewhere between the Wisconsin air show and New Jersey.
Staring up at the acoustic tile ceiling, surrounded by the rhythmic sound of ventilators and heart monitors, a piece falls into place that first week. It is the memory of fueling airplanes at South Jersey Regional Airport in Lumberton, Burlington County. Every Sunday and Monday that summer, he operates the fueling station from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and he seems to remember making it to work after leaving Wisconsin.
From that first snagged thread, the mystery starts to unravel. Then the memory of a radio conversation materializes.
* * *
Jason Flood was in the white Bellanca Scout banner plane he flew along South Jersey’s beaches for a friend’s new business. Over the radio on a Tuesday afternoon, he heard a familiar voice announce that he was preparing to land his “yellow bumblebee” at Hammonton Airport. It was Bill Gordon, who was flying in from Vermont to attend the annual Kathy Jaffe Challenge that weekend.
“Yo, Bill,” Jason said.
“Where you at?” His friend responded.
“Down in Ocean City flying banners.”
“You going to come up and practice?”
“Yeah, I have a couple more banners left to do, but I’ll be up there to practice.”
Starting that Friday, Aug. 5, more than 35 pilots would compete in four skill levels — Jason was an intermediate pilot, the second highest — at the International Aerobatic Club competition. The challenge, named for a Maplewood pilot who died in a 1999 accident, tested the pilots’ ability to perform a series of maneuvers, or “figures,” in a set part of the sky, the “aerobatic box” over the airport designated for aerobatic practice.
“The contest brings so many people together I haven’t seen for years,” Jason said. “Our contest family comes in, and we all have a good time.”
That competition would come and go without Jason, although the winner would dedicate his trophy to his fallen competitor. Jason didn’t know then, from his hospital bed, that two airplanes would collide two weeks later in the aerobatic box over Hammonton Airport. One of the pilots, who kept his plane at the same hangar — the Taildragger Inn — as Jason, would die and the Federal Aviation Administration would shut the box down.
Jason did his usual routine of driving to Woodbine on Tuesday morning, Aug. 2. He pulled the single-engine banner plane from its hangar and started his pre-flight checks. He triple-checked the flight schedule and then the “tach times” that show how long the plane has been flown. Next, the tire pressure, the brakes, the oil and the propeller. Using both the controls in the cockpit and manually outside, Jason made sure the ailerons, which control right or left movement, and the flaps, which can control angle and speed, were functioning.
Then Jason flew to Dick’s Field off Steelmanville Road in Egg Harbor Township, where a ground crewman had set up the day’s banners. After checking that the correct banners were laid out, he took off from the airfield. Once in the air, Jason threw a hook attached to the plane’s cockpit over his shoulder. The plane then looped around to approach the PVC pick-up poles that held a rope attached to the banner.
On the approach, Jason pulled up just before reaching the pick-up poles and began to count.
One Mississippi ... Two Mississippi ...
On three, if the banner rope had been snagged by the hook, Jason would feel a tug like on a fishing line. If he felt the tug, he would level the plane off, look over his shoulder in the cramped cockpit to make sure everything was in order, and head out to the flight destination. If the tug never came, he would have to loop back around and try again.
The process leaves very little room for error, and banner pilots sometimes need several attempts to compensate for the effects of the wind. It’s a profession well-suited to aerialists, who must execute precise movements within the confines of space and time.
* * *
After a brief stay at a children’s rehabilitation center, Jason returns to his Franklin Township home on Sept. 23, his 21st birthday.
The Floods had taken Jason’s older brothers out for their first drink on their 21st birthdays, but that isn’t possible given Jason’s condition and the blood thinners he is taking to prevent clotting. Instead, they have other surprises in store.
Each transport to his medical appointments costs the family $181, so Joseph Flood buys a black Dodge van outfitted with a wheelchair lift.
“Here, happy birthday,” says Joseph Flood to his son.
“Great, a wheelchair van,” the younger Flood deadpans. “What do I want with a wheelchair van?”
The Floods drive the van — dubbed the Mr. T van after the vehicle from “The A-Team” TV series — to Jason’s birthday party at the Star Cross Volunteer Fire Company in Franklin Township. When they wheel Jason into the hall, the nearly 100 guests gravitate toward him, and there they stay for the rest of the evening.
Jason receives the normal gifts young men receive — movies and video games — and a few more practical gifts, such as sweatpants for his physical therapy regimen. The most important gift, however, was something no one person can give.
“I got my life,” he said. “What more could you want?”
* * *
First reports said the crash happened at about 3 p.m. in a marshy area of Egg Harbor Township. Flood had been attempting to pick up a banner at the field, but missed. When he came back around again, for unknown reasons, the plane crashed. A firefighter told waiting reporters the pilot was “awake and responsive at the scene.”
That August afternoon was “hotter than hell” when Capt. Steven Prisament, of the Scullville Volunteer Fire Company, arrived on the scene with EMTs and firefighters in tow, about five minutes after the call went out. As incident commander, he was responsible for overseeing the company’s rescue efforts.
The crash site was about a mile northeast along Steelmanville Road from Robert Best Road, down a gravel driveway past an old farmhouse, across a dusty, unmarked airfield, and in the middle of tall grass. From the field, only the white tip of the tail protruded above the dense thicket.
Prisament laughs nervously as he describes the scene. “When we got to the plane, we could barely see Jason way down in it,” he said. “The plane still had its roof on it, a small roof — it was hard to explain. You couldn’t see any cockpit because he was hunched over, down into the controls, leaning forward, it was so compacted together.”
The pilot was bleeding heavily. The plane wasn’t on fire and Prisament didn’t see smoke, but the 20-year veteran knew he didn’t have much time.
“The majority of plane crashes we’ve been to are fatalities,” he said. “These little airplanes usually hit the ground and catch on fire and there’s no way for the person to get out.”
Hoses from the tanker trucks were laid out in case a spark ignited the fuel, but Prisament, 37, hoped they didn’t need to be used.
“We put out the fire, but if the person’s still in there, it’s not a good outcome,” he said. Using the “Jaws of Life,” the firefighters started cutting away at the steel encasing Jason. Halfway through, with his upper body free, they backed away to allow the EMTs to set up IV fluids and C-spine to support his neck.
Extricating Jason’s lower body took much longer, Prisament said. “You’ve seen planes before,” he said. “Your feet are almost under the engine.” After about 40 minutes, the firefighters were able to remove Jason from the shattered wreckage to a waiting helicopter to AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center in Atlantic City.
* * *
On one of the first nights home, when he can’t get to sleep in the hospital bed that has been installed in his parents’ family room, Jason turns on the iPad and browses the news reports of his accident. While he now knows what happened, these were detailed accounts.
“I didn’t want to have an accident attached to my name,” he says. “It’s very disheartening to me to be involved in an accident at such a young age, to have my whole career ahead of me.”
A few days later, he looks through the newspaper clippings his mother has stashed in her room since the accident. Reading his name and seeing his picture in the newspaper is a surreal experience.
“I would read it, and I would shake,” he says. “That’s me in there; it’s about me.”
The clips help fill the gaps in his memory, but also convey some of the anguish his family has gone through.
Flood goes on through the carefully clipped articles: Fellow aerialists and friends call him a “conscientious pilot” and an “old soul.” His flight instructor calls him the “most outstanding young pilot” he’d seen in more than 40 years. “His family could not be reached for comment.” They are in the hospital, first in waiting rooms and then at his silent bedside.
Then, a notice that Flood was “critical but stable,” but still in a medically induced coma. His father is quoted, saying his son’s future is in God’s hands and those of the Cooper University Hospital surgeons.
“Without them, he wouldn’t have lasted 14 minutes, let alone 14 days.” His father’s words reverberate in Jason’s head.
* * *
Patrolman Patrick Daly pulled his squad car onto the field moments before Rich Vogt, both “young guys” in the Egg Harbor Township police force at 33 and 27 years old.
Daly, first on the scene, ran across the field, his eyes sweeping the expanse for a plane or a pilot, until a member of the ground crew waved him down through the brush.
At first, he couldn’t see the pilot through the twisted mass of metal. It had landed “belly-down” in the tall grass, causing its landing gear and wings to collapse under the force of impact and the weight of the fuselage. Jason was lodged deep within what was left of the cockpit, his face pressed against the instrument panel. He was covered in blood from a gash in his forehead.
Looking at the graphic police photos, Jason was surprised he didn’t lose any teeth, an eye or need reconstructive surgery on his nose.
“My face was in the panel and there are all these little dials and nobs I could have hit,” he said. “I got real upset . . . to see that’s me in there, not some stranger looking at a car wreck.”
Vogt, who arrived moments later with a medic bag, helped Daly rip off the plexiglass windshield. Then he climbed up over the front of the aircraft and called out to Jason. Fading in and out of consciousness, the pilot answered Vogt’s questions with moans. When he did speak, Jason repeated the same five words.
“Get me out of here. Get me out of here.”
At that moment, neither officer was optimistic the young man would survive what appeared to be extensive injuries. “I thought he was gone,” Daly said.
Vogt began administering first aid, assessing Jason’s condition and shouting information down to Daly, who stood by with a radio. He tried to stem the blood loss, but his first job was keeping the pilot calm and steady as Jason tried to pull himself out of the cockpit. Vogt worried Jason would cause further injuries by trying to dislodge his legs, which the officers couldn’t see beneath the wreckage.
“He wanted out,” he said. “So I’m consoling him, trying to keep him focused on me rather than the situation around him.”
Through the 40 minutes — after EMTs arrived with IVs and firefighters with the Jaws of Life — Vogt kept talking to Jason and holding his shoulders still. The pilot resisted the paramedics when they tried to insert IVs in his arm. Meeting him again six months later, Vogt wasn’t surprised to learn Jason didn’t like needles. Then the firefighters were able to extricate Jason from the plane, and he was taken to a waiting helicopter and on to the hospital.
Covered in blood and sweat, Daly and Vogt remained at the scene waiting for FAA officials to arrive and begin their investigation. Vogt climbed atop a nearby fire engine to take aerial photographs of the scene.
“I sat down and started to think about it all,” he said. “I was surprised he’d survived the crash.” At home that night on his computer, Vogt searched for “Jason Flood.” He read the 20-year-old pilot’s website and watched the YouTube videos of his air show competitions.
“You always keep them in your thoughts,” he said. “You’re hoping he’ll be OK, but in this job you never know.”
* * *
Everything Jason took for granted in his previous life is turned on its head after the accident. While he has enough upper body strength to pull on shirts, he relies on his mother to pull up his pants. Rehabilitation technicians help him re-learn how to walk, but the process is achingly slow. And, worst of all, he wonders if he will be able to get back into his airplane.
“I was laying in bed so long, when I stood up the dots started, and I was blanking out,” he says. “It took weeks to get that (blood) flow back.”
In October, his parents take him to see his red-and-white show plane, a 1991 Pitts Special. He sits by the plane in his wheelchair, wiping bugs off the leading edges of the wings and the propeller.
“My dad never cleaned it,” he says. “It looked the same as when I got back from Oshkosh.”
Later that month, the doctors allow him to begin walking again, but insist he not put any pressure on his left heel, which had shattered during the accident. He must learn to walk on the ball of his left foot, and with a walker.
“It made no sense to me,” Jason says. “In my right leg, I broke my femur and tibia; I got rods and plates all over the place. I’m OK to walk on a brand new leg, but I can’t walk on my left leg, which has nothing wrong with it besides the heel.”
Jason carefully tests his left heel, gradually pressing back. He can feel the broken bones creaking and shifting in his foot, so he stops.
In the rehab facility, and then at home, Jason walks in increments. First standing at his bedside, then a few steps out across the family room, then to the door, halfway down the driveway and finally all the way to the end.
“I’d sit back and watch him from afar,” Janet Flood says. “When I would look at him, I’m thinking, ‘wow.’”
Another frustrating reality is that his physical condition is now, for the first time, a public attraction. Some people are good-natured about their interest, but most just stare. And because three inches of muscle was cut from his back during surgery, Jason walks with a pronounced lean.
For Christmas, a friend decorates Jason’s walker with bells and tinsel. When he walks into a store with it one day, a woman there tells him she thinks the walker is cute. It is the wrong comment on the wrong day.
“Listen, I’m 21 years old, I don’t want to be seen in a walker,” Jason tells her. “It feels like I’m 81.”
* * *
As his injuries healed, Jason decided he wanted to meet the people who helped saved his life. Last month, he attended an awards banquet at the Scullville Volunteer Fire Company.
Jason let his father do most of the talking. When the microphone was passed to him, he fumbled for the right words. “First off guys, I’d like to say sorry for the inconvenience with the poison ivy,” he said. “This was a team effort and there’s no ‘I’ in team and you guys didn’t go get a candy bar before you headed out to the scene. You were right there, right on time, and I can’t thank you guys enough.”
Despite the frustrations of his recovery, Jason said he was grateful to all the responders, who braved 90-degree heat, chiggers, ticks and poison ivy to save him. And he wanted to know what they went through.
“They could’ve just said, ‘He’s going to die, let him go, we can’t cut him (out),’” he said.
* * *
Jason ditches the walker in January, after nearly three months, but the progress is mostly accidental.
After a long day at the rehabilitation center, he gathers his things and starts walking out of the facility. He is in the parking lot when he realizes he has left the walker behind.
“I turned around and decided, ‘Nah, I don’t need it,’” he says. “It felt really good not to have to be dependent on something, to be walking out of that place on my own.”
Jason is also finally able to move out of the family room and back into his own room, something that felt like a “huge triumph.”
“When I was downstairs, near the kitchen and the computer, it’s like you’re on display,” he says. “Everyone that walks around sees you, and sometimes you want privacy.”
The room, with its blue walls and white ceiling, seems frozen in time. Photos and trophies still line the walls, documenting his life in aviation: the miniature wooden planes he pedaled in parades, him helping out in his father’s restoration shop, his first solo flight at age 16 and flying at the 2010 Atlantic City Airshow. Model airplanes still hang from the ceiling. His textbooks from aviation classes at Mercer County Community College are on the floor where he left them. And his clothes from the Oshkosh trip are still laying out.
“One day, my mom and my brother got all that stuff together,” he says. “It’s funny, I remember where everything was months later.”
* * *
Keith Arnao, the friend and mentor who visited Jason in the hospital, died on Jan. 28.
On Feb. 4, Jason decided to fly his Pitts Special for the first time since the accident, joining his father and two other pilots for a “Missing Man” formation over Keith’s funeral at the Odd Fellows Cemetery in Burlington. On the ground, at the Taildragger Inn hangar in Hammonton, Joseph Flood asked his son if he was sure he was ready.
“I was nervous, because I wasn’t sure I was ready,” Jason said. “But I knew this was something I had to do.” In Burlington, Janet Flood held her breath as the priest announced that planes would soon be flying over in memory of the deceased. The first three planes flew across the cemetery and, as planned, Joseph pulled his Pitts Special up out of the formation. But Jason’s red-and-white plane wasn’t with them.
“My heart sank,” Janet said. “I thought he couldn’t do it.”
The funeral attendees were starting to break up when she heard a single plane engine in the distance, Jason’s plane.
“It was so beautiful,” she said. “It was something to behold.”
* * *
Jason visited the doctors and nurses of Cooper University Hospital on Thursday, including some he had never met because of the medically induced coma. After being stabilized at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center in Atlantic City, he received a series of lifesaving surgeries at the Camden hospital.
Sarah Woodrow, Jason’s spine surgeon, said the initial surgeries were all about juggling his various injuries and not causing any additional harm. The doctors had to stabilize first, and then prioritize.
“We were figuring out what was lifesaving and what was limb-saving, but even the less important (problems) were still important,” she said. “The whole story is amazing, from surviving the initial crash to getting to the hospital today.”
Jamie Eisele, Jason’s nurse in the intensive care unit, said she wasn’t able to speak with her patient, but she grew to know him through his myriad expressions, whether they conveyed discomfort or relief.
“You could always see him look for his parents and the relief in his eyes when he’d find them,” she said. Being able to see him again, walking on two feet, was rewarding to the entire floor. Not many patients choose to come back, and some never recover at all, Eisele said.
“You can see the hurt and the love in the families,” she said. “Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it tears you apart. Seeing (Jason) again makes the job worth it — it reminds you of why you do what you do.”
Jason has already scheduled his first air show for August and plans to begin practicing again in his Pitts Special this spring. Even though the cross-country flight will take longer because his condition tires him out faster — and Keith Arnao won’t be there — he will return to Oshkosh this July. In the fall, he plans to pick up his studies again with the goal of gaining the certifications and experience necessary to become a commercial jet pilot.
Contact Wallace McKelvey: