NEARLY 'RE-TIRED' - After blowout causes highway crash, injured instructor pilot flies again

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class JIMMIE PIKE and TIM BARELA
  • 47th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs, Laughlin AFB, Texas and Torch Magazine
Covered in her own blood and writhing from a stabbing pain emanating from her left leg, 1st Lt. Laura Jones didn't worry about bleeding to death or losing her mangled limb. The first lucid thought she could recall was whether or not she would be able to return to the cockpit.

"I was terrified that I'd never be able to fly again," said the T-6 Texan II instructor pilot, who is assigned to the 85th Flying Training Squadron at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas.

Her career seemed ruined, her dreams grounded.

The culprit?

A tire blowout.

On Jan. 2, Jones was returning to her home base at Laughlin after spending the holidays with her family in Ohio. After flying into San Antonio International Airport and collecting her car from long-term parking, she drove west on the last leg of the trip -- a rural stretch of Highway 90 near Knippa, Texas. Traveling in the opposite direction, a minivan occupied by a driver and four passengers suddenly veered into her lane.

"There was nothing I could have done," Jones said. "We were both traveling about 75 miles per hour. I hit the brakes. But we were too close."

The minivan's driver, a middle-aged man, lost control of his vehicle after its front right tire exploded. The 4,000-pound minivan smashed into the front driver's side of the lieutenant's 2003 Volkswagen Jetta and crushed it like an empty soda can. Only, this "can" wasn't empty.

The force of the violent impact jammed the Jetta's left front wheel into the cabin, pinning Jones' left leg. Both vehicles spun out of control across the highway, coming to rest in the dirt and grass at the side of the road.

Trapped and in shock, Jones watched almost surreally as the dust that had been kicked up by her car settled. But the agonizing pain shooting from her lower left limb snapped her from her trance.

"It was pretty apparent that my leg was broken," the 25-year-old said. "I was trapped, but I didn't want to move much anyway because I didn't know how much damage had been done to my neck and spine. The pain from my leg pretty much masked all of my other injuries, so I didn't know how bad it was."

The answer? ... Very bad.

She shattered her left femur, fractured her right wrist in four places and broke her jaw in two places. She also suffered lacerations to her kidney and spleen, bruised lungs, and multiple scrapes and bruises all over her body.

"An off-duty National Guardsman arrived and managed to get into the back of my vehicle," she said. "He stabilized my neck to keep me from damaging my cervical spine and talked to me until the paramedics arrived."

An Air Life Helicopter and ambulances rushed the driver of the other vehicle and his four passengers to emergency medical care. Jones was airlifted to San Antonio Military Medical Center for emergency care and surgery.

The injured instructor pilot -- who stayed conscious throughout the wreck, the rescue from her vehicle and the extraction to the hospital -- couldn't help but worry if this would be her last flight.

One thing was for sure: Her flying career would be grounded for the foreseeable future.

Fortunately, doctors assured her that her neck, spine and eyes remained intact -- a big lift for someone wanting to get back in the cockpit as soon as possible. Nevertheless, she spent 11 days in the hospital and faced several grueling months of physical therapy and rehabilitation.

"My main concern was when I would be able fly again," said the Columbus, Ohio, native, who confessed she was one of those kids who dreamed of flying as far back as she can remember. Her dad had been a security forces officer at Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base, Ohio, so she grew up watching KC-135 Stratotankers take off and land, knowing she belonged in the cockpit of an Air Force jet.

"When I talked to the flight doctors, they said I'd be shooting to fly again in June," she said. "I was bummed that it would take so long."

But that initial dejection turned into a defiant determination that manifested itself in her rehab efforts.

"We started her with basic range of motion exercises to work up to light weights and ensure she didn't overwork herself," said Kira Pie, a local physical therapy assistant.

But they couldn't hold Jones back.

Weeks ahead of schedule therapists had "her going through impact workouts, like skipping, to get her body adjusted to the feel of pressure on the joints and bones," Pie said.

Even though her body ached and her workouts were intense, Jones pushed herself with one goal in mind.

"After I started progressing so quickly, I knew I could fly sooner," she said.

Jones' hard work and dedication in physical therapy paid off when she had her first flight since the accident April 21, less than four months after the mishap and two months ahead of schedule.

"The flight went great," she said. "I knocked off a lot of rust and have my confidence back.
I felt better than I expected I would."

Jones' group commander took notice and commended Jones for her initiative.

"The fact that she is flying this soon after an accident that should have been fatal is testament to her hard work, determination and desire to fly," said Col. Timothy MacGregor, the 47th Operations Group commander. "She belongs here as a first assignment instructor pilot to teach the students what it means to be a pilot in the world's greatest Air Force."

For Jones, that's a far cry better than early "re-tire-ment."