Until last August, the only thing miraculous about Jason Flood was his youth — the young pilot flew alongside men more than twice his age.
But after a banner plane crash left him critically injured in a medically-induced coma, no one imagined he would be here, competing at the Wildwoods AcroBlast Competition that begins today.
But today Flood, 21, will go through his usual pre-flight routines this morning. He will walk around the plane, checking the aelerons and the propeller. He will walk through his routine — the dips and rolls and inverses — on the ground before taking off from Cape May County Airport.
Jason Flood was trying to pick up a banner from a grassy airfield when his single-engine airplane crashed into an area of dense brush in Egg Harbor Township. Responders spent 40 minutes freeing the bloodied pilot from the wreckage. Eventually, he was flown to Cooper Medical Center, where a series of surgeries mended his broken bones and a torn aorta, and ultimately saved his life.
While family and friends remained hopeful the aerobat would return to the skies, Jason’s recovery was a dim hope in the weeks and months that followed.
“What if I never fly again?” Flood asked his father after he awoke and the tracheostomy tube had been removed.
“You did more than most people ever dream about,” his father, Joecq, remembers telling his son. “What are you supposed to do?”
“It was a big rollercoaster, following him through his recovery,” said Adam Copecq, a friend and pilot from Alexandria, Va., who will also be competing today. “You really hate seeing somebody you care about go through this; to have such a bright future and potentially lose it.”
But quitting was never an option for Jason.
Just as he walks through routines pre-flight today, he walked through mental routines in his hospital bed or from his wheelchair. As he worked through months of physical therapy, Jason spent a lot of time at his father’s Hammonton plane restoration shop and kept in touch with pilot friends.
“These guys would say, ‘it was a nice night to go for a flight’,” he said before practice Wednesday, with a mordant laugh. “It was awful not being able to get up there and they’d rub it in my face.”
Cope said he’d get excited texts from his friend, marking each new accomplishment of Jason’s recovery: the first time he got out of his wheelchair and walked, the first time he crammed his aching body into his father’s plane, the first time he went flying in his father’s plane.
In mid-May, Jason received medical clearance to fly solo again. Since then, he has been learning his competition routines maneuver by maneuver and trying to build up his tolerance to the forces gravity exerts on all stunt pilots. Wednesday marked the first day Jason was able to practice the whole routine. Many of his competitors have practiced the same routine for months.
Jason said he’s trying to temper his expectations and just have fun, but it’s difficult.
“It’s just like in school — I don’t want a B or a C; I want an A,” he said. “I want to be in the top three, or the top two, or No. 1. That’s who I am.”
Joe Flood said he’s told his son he has nothing to prove, but the competition is more about Jason proving his abilities to himself.
“He gets a lot of ribbing, you know,” he said. “People say, ‘thank God you’re no longer a threat to me anymore.’ It’s kind of funny, but in a way, I think it hurts him deep down inside.”
For Jason, the competition is another step toward a full recovery and the life he wants to live. This fall, he’ll again pick up studying for the certification to become a commercial pilot. He has an air show performance scheduled in August, two more competitions later this year and he hopes to add even more.
It all starts today, at the Cape May County Airport.
If the he flies the sequence correctly, he’ll be back on the ground in four minutes. If he executes the maneuvers with agility and grace, he could be on his way to winning the three-day competition.
Medically, Jason said, there’s nothing prohibiting him from flying. The doctors have said the stent in his heart will withstand the forces gravity exerts on his body. The only limitation now is his stamina, which he’s gradually built back up, first through physical therapy and later — after his insurance company started limiting coverage — at the gym.
“I’m not like I used to be; I can’t jump back in the airplane and wring myself out,” he said. “I don’t go out there right away and do a severe maneuver—I have to start off with an easy roll or a loop and build up.”
Mark Stewartcq, a 58-year-old aerobat who flew in from Erie, Pa., said Flood’s return to the aerobatics community is bittersweet.
“I really emphasize with him when he tries to do these high-G (force) maneuvers, because I know it has to be painful,” said Stewart, who’s known Jason for nearly a decade. “It shows incredible determination for a young man to come back from such a devastating accident that he almost didn’t survive.”
Cope said he’s relieved to see Jason’s recovery. Despite the difference in their ages — Cope is 40 — he said the young pilot shares his deep-rooted love of aviation.
“I saw a younger me in him and I enjoyed watching him progress,” Cope said. “I made a deal with Jason when I first met him that when my son was old enough to fly, he’d be his mentor — I’ll be too old.”
Jason continues to think about the accident that nearly took his life.
“I just look at the pictures, wishing I could remember and wondering why I can’t,” he said. “People say it’s a good thing you don’t, but I want to know.”
The FAA’s investigation is still ongoing nearly 11 months after the crash.
Knowing, Jason said, would put him at ease.
He’s made some changes. He won’t fly banner planes again. “That chapter of my life is over,” he says. And the young pilot, who friends and mentors noted for his conscientiousness before the accident, said he’s even more aware of his safety — indeed, his mortality — now.
If you go
WHAT: Wildwoods AcroBlast
WHEN: All day, Friday through Sunday
WHERE: Cape May County Airport, 1108 Lexington Avenue, Erma
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