MAN on WIRE - Pilot overcomes losing legs after crashing plane into power lines

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class James Hensley and Tim Barela
  • Torch
After a plane crash, nine days in a coma and 28 surgeries, including a double amputation of his legs, retired Capt. David Berling understands what it means to overcome adversity.

On April 29, 2007, Berling flew his private plane into a power line, just 20 seconds from landing at Hawthorne Municipal Airport near Los Angeles. Crashing into a dark, vacant dirt field, the aircraft flipped onto its top. The violent impact pushed the plane's engine into the cockpit, crushing Berling's legs.

His lower leg bones splintered into pieces, and he was bleeding to death. He needed to have both limbs removed to save his life.

"When I heard what happened to my husband, I was in shock," said Melissa Berling, David's wife.

She said she focused on getting to him and saved "freaking out" for later. David was already on the operating table when she arrived at the hospital.

"I was rushed to Harbor UCLA Medical Center, where I underwent life-saving surgery," said Berling, now a civilian working as a 56th Contracting Squadron contract specialist at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. "I was transferred to Naval Medical Center, San Diego, after five days, where I remained an inpatient for more than two months and in rehabilitation for another year."

In addition to his amputations, the former captain suffered a traumatic brain injury; broken ribs and femurs; a fractured jaw, humerus, radius and ulna; chipped vertebrae; eight busted teeth; bruised lungs and kidneys; and a lacerated spleen and liver.

"I don't remember any part of the accident," he said.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board investigation report, Berling descended below the published minimum descent altitude for an instrument approach into that airfield, which resulted in the collision with the wires and terrain. The report added that his inexperience in instrument landing at night and in bad weather likely contributed to his spatial disorientation. Additionally, the report pointed to his lack of familiarity with his plane (it was his first solo flight in his recently purchased 1988 Beechcraft Bonanza Turbo) as playing a role in the mishap, as well.

Berling said some errant information from an air traffic controller also didn't help.

"After my accident, I realized, as the pilot, you're in command and ultimately responsible for that aircraft," he said. "Air traffic control is your adviser. If you're not comfortable with their direction, ask for alternatives. If you aren't given any, get the aircraft on the ground safely and be prepared to answer for any deviation from their direction. ... Live to fly another day."

With help from family and friends and sheer determination, Berling recovered from his nearly fatal accident and even wrote a book about the experience. The book, "Just Living the Dream: No Way Out but Through" (available at and, chronicles his crash and comeback.

"I want people to know they are not alone when going through tragedies like mine," he said. "I hope people can see there's light at the end of the tunnel."

Berling didn't let the accident deter his love of flying. He still pilots a private Cessna.

"No matter what you try in life, you will have failures," he said. "The goal is to learn from those failures and not dwell on them."