By Karen Billing
No one ever really tells you what to do after you pilot an airplane that crashes.
Del Mar pilot Jeremiah Jackson got a quick how-to lesson after he avoided sharp mountain peaks, trees and a deep gorge and crash-landed his experimental plane into the brush of Cleveland National Forest on Jan. 5, 2013.
What was one of the first things that happened after he was able to climb out of his crushed plane unharmed? He received a ticket from a ranger for illegally parking in a national reserve.
In his new book, “Four Minutes,” Jackson relives the horror of his interrupted flight that day and the aviation and life lessons learned, the decisions he had to make quickly that ended up saving his life.
A reading and book-signing event will be held at the Del Mar Library on Sunday, Feb. 23, at 2 p.m.
The book is Jackson’s second, as he also wrote “The Flight of the Feral Chihuahua” about his 2010 trip from San Diego to Jacksonville, Fla., which broke the round-trip transcontinental speed record in a plane he built partly in his Del Mar garage. He is also an avid skydiver with over 1,800 parachute jumps and holds eight skydiving records.
“When you’ve done over 1,800 skydives, the probability catches up to you that an incident might happen. I’ve had six malfunctions where the parachute hasn’t opened and that gave me a little taste. It’s terrifying. But you have to get a grip with it and try to solve the problem and save your life. You have to deal with the panic. Those skydives prepared me for the mental challenge of the crash,” Jackson said. “Don’t ever stop trying to solve the problem. Up over the mountains with no airport in sight and your first thought is to give up. But my parachute experience taught me to not give up. You’ve got to solve the problem.”
Jackson’s plane, The Urban Coyote, was bigger than his Feral Chihuahua, a “beautiful” four-seater that could fly higher and faster. It took him about two years to build — he finished the plane in December 2012. His wife, Nina, had excitedly helped flush the rivets, making for a smooth skin on the plane’s fairing.
With experimental planes, the FAA has several strict limitations. Planes are required to have 25 hours of flight time before taking any other passengers or flying at night, and the FAA assigns designated areas that the planes are allowed to fly to accrue that flight time.
The Coyote was based in Ramona and Jackson started taking the plane out on tests flights after Christmas. His fourth test flight was on Jan. 5 and at that point the plane had flown about four hours total.
That day, Jackson planned to test some speeds and altitudes, fly to Borrego Valley Airport and Agua Caliente Airport to practice take-offs and landings before returning to Ramona.
“I was halfway back over the mountains near Julian, when I noticed my oil pressure gauge was dropping rapidly,” Jackson said. “At first I thought ‘I hope it’s just the gauge but I better take it seriously.’”
About 20 miles east of Ramona he called in to declare an emergency and that he needed radar vectors for an expedited approach. He was told there were some potential nearby airports, such as the Flying T, but he couldn’t find it and it was too far away.
“At about that time, the engine lost all oil and seized up and failed, violently shaking and rocking as it ground to a stop,” Jackson said. “And then it got really quiet.”
As the plane glided, Jackson looked around for a place to put it down, eyeing a steep gorge by Eagle Peak that he decided immediately to avoid. About 100 feet off the ground, he coasted to avoid the gorge, came over a hill and saw a dirt trail, which he followed as it led to a grove of eucalyptus trees and a parking lot where cars were parked from Eagle Peak hikers.
He knew he didn’t want to come to an abrupt stop because his body wouldn’t be able to handle the g-force and he knew he didn’t want to go into the trees or cars. He also knew he had to ride the plane down — if he jumped out, the plane essentially becomes a bomb.
“I was able to turn left and swooped by the trees, landing right next to the dirt trail in some brush,” Jackson said.
He hit going about 60 miles per hour, but the plane did a good job protecting him — he had installed a good safety harness and head rest that kept him in place as he came to a stop. On impact the nose gear ripped off, the engine compartment was crushed and the landing gear broke off, but Jackson was able to open the door and deplane unharmed.
The plane had an emergency beacon that can detect when a plane crashes and sent out a signal to notify the Air Force. Jackson had pre-registered it for the Air Force to call his wife Nina in the event of an emergency. Jackson knew it would be a horrible call for Nina to receive and all he wanted to do in that moment was to get her a message that he was alive.
His cell phone could not get a signal.
In fact, his wife Nina did get the call when having lunch with friends at San Clemente but she was not concerned in the slightest when told the emergency beacon was sounding.
“She said, ‘Oh, he’s fine, he probably bumped the switch.’ My wife is the unsung hero of this story, she had so much faith in me, it didn’t bother her one bit,” Jackson said.
A group of hikers let him use their phone to text Nina that he was OK and only then did she realize that he had, in fact, crashed.
Emergency responders were on the scene shortly and he was able to hitch a ride back to Ramona in the fire truck, making uneasy conversation with the firefighters after hearing they’d never met the pilots at crash sights before because they usually did not survive.
Jackson had to return the next day to turn off the emergency beacon that was still sounding, to salvage valuable pieces of the plane and to find a way to get the plane out of the middle of nowhere. He used GPS coordinates to return to the site and he and his wife worked on salvaging the plane all afternoon until they lost sunlight and rain gave way to sleet and eventually it started to snow. It broke his heart to see Nina use a rock to bang on the plane to remove the screws on the fairing she had so lovingly made smooth.
Because of the snow, Cruise Air Aviation wasn’t able to get the plane out for another couple days. At that point someone had shot the plane with a rifle, which helped Jackson understand the rangers’ ticket and urgency in getting the plane out because of the risk of vandals and fire — the plane had landed close to where the Witch Creek Fires began in 2007.
Jackson said he was devastated immediately after the crash, rattled, and he didn’t want anything to do with airplanes. But Nina would not let him quit.
She encouraged him to get back in the air — which he did later that week, flying an “eerie” path over the crash scene. Nina also encouraged him to rebuild The Urban Coyote.
“It’s flyable but it’s not quite done yet,” Jackson said of the plane, being rebuilt better than new with the help of “phenomenal artisan” Kale Goodman.
Despite the fear of that day, Jackson can still smile in the retelling of the story. He likes having the opportunity to share his survival lessons with others. He still loves to fly and has his eye on breaking more records although he isn’t willing to reveal them just yet.
“I think (the crash) made me a better pilot,” Jackson said. “I watch that oil gauge a lot closer.”
“Four Minutes” is available for hardcopy or e-book purchase on lulu.com, amazon.com, the itunes bookstore and the Barnes & Noble site.