Coyotes and Cockpits - After losing his leg to a hunting accident, a major works his way back to flying C-130s

  • Published
  • By Capt. Michael G. Johnson
  • 386th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
Maj. Alan Brown grew up the way many boys in the West do -- with hard work and a love for the outdoors.

In 1994, he became a C-130 Hercules pilot with the Wyoming Air National Guard and was living the dream of many, flying whenever he could and spending the rest of his time hunting, fishing and helping out on his father's farm.

But that dream came to a screeching halt one cold night in southern Wyoming.

Early in the day on Jan. 21, 1999, Brown had flown a training mission with the 153rd Airlift Wing where he was an aircraft commander. He then brought his good friend and flying partner, Steve Friedman, home for dinner. After finishing their meal, the two set out to hunt coyotes just across the border in northern Colorado.

They were driving along a desolate road when they spotted a coyote. The major reached for his gun as Friedman quickly pulled the pickup over to the side of the road.

"When I went to pull (the gun) out, I was totally focusing on the coyote," Brown said.

He worked quickly to pull the gun from its case and get the shot, but the weapon got hung up. Maintaining his focus on the coyote, he jiggled the gun to shake it loose.

The gun fired into his right leg.

With the loud bang followed by the stinging burn of hot lead, Brown knew he was in trouble.

"I can't remember how (the gun) got off safety, but it shot right through the lower femur above the knee" the major said. "We found out later that much of my femur was gone."

In the "middle of nowhere" and potentially bleeding to death, Brown says his friend's quick and decisive actions saved his life.

"Make no mistake, the only reason I'm here today is because of Steve," Brown said. "We go way back; he's just an exceptional guy."

Friedman gave his wounded buddy a piece of cloth to use as a tourniquet. Brown tied it around his leg just above the wound and cranked down to help stop the bleeding.

Friedman, meanwhile, put the pedal to the metal and pointed the truck in the direction of Greeley, Colo., the nearest town with a hospital.

Their cell phones didn't work in the remote area.

Then, a little luck. As Friedman drove as fast as he could toward Greeley, he spotted several buses at an intersection.

"(Steve) pulled in front of the buses and stopped to ask for help," Brown said. "One of the guys happened to be an EMT (emergency medical technician)."

Snow had started falling hard enough to prevent a helicopter from flying to the rescue. Thankfully, the EMT had a working cell phone and made arrangements with an ambulance to meet the men halfway.

"(We met the ambulance), and they took over," Brown said. "With only a few exceptions, that's about all I remember until five weeks later when I woke up in the hospital."

Brown had been placed in a drug-induced coma, and the first three weeks following the mishap were dedicated to saving his leg. After numerous vein grafts, surgeries and a transfer to Denver to see one of the best trauma surgeons in the country, the major was still going downhill fast. He was on a ventilator and a dialysis machine.

Doctors made a tough decision.

"They told my parents and girlfriend at the time, Gina (who later became his wife), 'We have to remove the leg or he's going to die,' " he said.

After the amputation, the major's condition immediately improved. In a short time he was discharged from the intensive care unit to a rehabilitation floor.

He spent two months in the hospital. He spent five weeks of that time in a coma. When he regained consciousness, his leg was gone.

"People ask if I was freaked out (when I woke up)," he said. "No, I knew I was in the hospital. I knew I had a pretty bad accident. So when I saw my leg wasn't there, it made sense."

As he regained consciousness and awareness, he asked his mom, dad and best friend two questions.

"I asked, 'Is Phinney around?' -- Phinney is my wife's nickname -- and they said, 'Yes she'll be here in about 20 minutes.' I was relieved," he said. "The second thing I asked is, 'Can I fly again?' All of them said yes."

While Brown was in a coma, his family, friends and squadron co-workers laid the groundwork for the major to fly again. They had a list of names of pilots who were flying with an above-the-knee prosthesis.

About three weeks after his release from the hospital, the major received his first prosthesis. He taught himself to walk again and began going to the gym.

"For the next several months I was just trying to get back, trying to get my strength back more or less and just resuming everything that I could," he said.

Gradually, one sit-up at a time, he began regaining his strength. His life began falling into place.

About six months after the accident, Brown met Raymond Francis, a prosthetics expert from Ohio with a soft spot in his heart for military people.

"He's been excellent at getting me and many other military guys back on our feet -- literally," the Air National Guardsman said. "I got hooked up with him and this higher-tech, more high-activity leg. Shortly after that I made two trips to the (flight) simulator."

Still trying to walk well at the time, Brown was eager to see if he could fly again.

"I had to work at it, but I never crashed," he said about his first flight in the simulator.

In June 2000, about 15 months after the accident, the Federal Aviation Administration gave the major a check ride and reinstated his medical clearance. One week later, he received an interview with a civilian airline company.

"That was totally coincidental," he said. "I had my application in with them for a couple years. They had no idea I had even lost my leg."

Nevertheless, he ended up getting the job.

He flew with the airline for three-and-a-half years before being furloughed in March 2003. Afterward, he spent more time trying to regain his flying status with the Guard.

In November 2004, Gen. John Handy, then commander of Air Mobility Command, visited the major's wing, but Brown wasn't there that day. During his visit, the general talked about all the great things the Air Force was accomplishing, including allowing the first above-the-knee amputee to fly again at Andrews Air Force Base, Md.

When the general opened the floor to questions, one of Brown's friends told the general about him and asked why he couldn't fly.

The general looked at him and said, "Let's talk about this after this briefing." Then, the general met with Brown's friend and the wing commander to discuss the major's situation.

"He told my wing commander he wanted me to resubmit my package to fly again and that he wanted to be kept posted the entire time about what was going on," he said. "That was in November of 2004. I found out at the beginning of October 2005 that they were going to give me a waiver to fly again."

In August 2006, Brown attended pilot re-qualification training at Little Rock AFB, Ark., -- seven years and five months after he lost his leg. Today, he's again a C-130 pilot in the Wyoming Air National Guard.

"We accomplished more in that half hour with (General Handy) than I had been able to the whole time before," he said with a look of relief. "All I was trying to do was resume my life the way (it had been)."

While Brown says he has never considered himself fortunate to be an amputee, he claims modern medicine and science have helped eased the burden.

"We're lucky to be amputees (at a time) when there's so much technology to make our lives good, make our lives more normal," he said. "I've also had backing at my unit. Our wing commander has never done anything but offer support, and that's been awesome."

Brown hopes others can learn two important lessons from the mishap that interrupted his life.

"First of all, (if you have a limb amputated), your life is not over," the major said. "Second, as far as the accident goes, just count to three before you act. There's nothing that important that you have to act hastily and have an accident like this."

He added that if people learn from his mistake, then his leg won't have been lost in vain.