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His Daughter the Hero

She thought she was all grown up. Her father thought she wasn’t grown up enough. Turns out they were both wrong

By Brian Brown, Wilton, California

As appeared in

Storm clouds hugged the sky, the rain continuing to fall. I slumped in the seat of my plane, on a deserted gravel landing strip in southeast Oregon. I looked at my watch. Six-thirty P.M. Saturday evening. This weather delay had stretched to three hours now. We’d left California that morning.

Behind me I could hear Heather, my 26-year-old daughter, talking to her boyfriend on her cell phone, her tone a combination of boredom and irritation. “We’re in the middle of nowhere. Probably going to have to spend the night on the plane.... Unbelievable, right?”

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I let out a sigh. Heather hated flying, especially in my 1966 Cessna 172, a fourseater, loud and bumpy. Perfect for me. A deputy fire chief, I pride myself on being ready for anything. Nothing like Heather. She’s strong-willed. Emotional. I loved her to pieces, but I wasn’t sure she was really up for this trip.

“Listen, I’ve gotta go,” she said. “My battery’s almost dead.”

I glanced over at my wife, Jayann, in the seat next to me, her head bowed in prayer. Okay. None of us wanted to be here. I was a veteran pilot but not instrument rated. I’m not allowed to fly unless I have clear visibility.

That’s why we were stuck, an hour away from our destination, our oldest daughter, Tabitha’s, place in southern Idaho. We’d run into this storm just west of the Owyhee Mountains.

I’d spent the last year planning this trip–our itinerary, where we’d stop to refuel, the exact amount of weight we could carry in order to safely fly over the mountains. Even downloaded special travel apps on my phone.

I had it all figured out, a leisurely four-hour flight from our home south of Sacramento. Just Jayann and me. A perfect Memorial Day weekend. Then, at the last minute, Heather demanded to come. I’d had to redo everything. Luckily we hadn’t needed to pack much, just shorts and T-shirts.

Suddenly the weather started to clear; a patch here and there. Enough for us to get over the mountains while it was still light. “All right! Let’s do this,” I said. Jayann texted Tabitha with the news. “I’m telling her to pray,” she said. But I thought we’d be just fine.

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We took off like a shot. Just as we began to cross over the Owyhees, the skies turned dark again, a huge cloud formation directly ahead. I turned south. Another enormous black cloud cluster. Seconds later, as if it had swallowed us, we were inside of it.

Then the plane stalled. We were going to hit the mountain head-on. “I’m sorry, I don’t think we’re going to make it,” I cried. “I love you both.” We were falling. I pitched the nose down, desperate to get lift. I pulled back hard on the yoke, pulling with every muscle in my body.

The plane crashed through the canopy. Branches. Where was the mountain?

Everything went dark.

Slowly I opened my eyes. My mind was fuzzy. I felt something pouring down my cheek. I was bleeding. I’m alive!

“Help me! Mom’s falling!” A voice. Far away. Slowly, I looked over to where...Jayann! She was hanging limp, her seat belt barely keeping her from falling through a gaping hole in the fuselage. The door was gone. Heather held tight to Jayann’s back, her arms trembling. “Dad! Help!

I grabbed hold of my wife and helped Heather pull her safely inside. Jayann’s eyes were rolled back. She was gasping for air. A head injury. I’d seen the same signs on emergency calls I’d been on. I repositioned her head and cleared her airway. No response. Twenty seconds. A minute.

I kissed her. “Don’t die,” I said.