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RETURN FLIGHT

THE BALTIMORE SUN

EDGEWATER - No one showed the slightest interest last month when John Theune took off from Lee Airport one morning in the middle of the week.

None of the airport staff or the regulars bothered to step out into the frigid air to watch. No well-wishers came to Edgewater to see him off.

It all looked perfectly ordinary and inconsequential. John revved the Cessna's engine, accelerated down the runway and, with a tug of the yoke, nosed the little plane skyward as effortlessly as a kite swept aloft by a gust of wind.

Nothing to it; exactly as John, 47, had hoped.

He never seriously considered that he wouldn't fly again, although at first his wife, Amy, remained adamantly opposed to the idea. For much of the last year, such preoccupations were theoretic at best. Initially, keeping John and their son David among the living was Amy's only desire.

Their prognoses were grim when Amy reached Atlanta's Grady Memorial Hospital on New Year's Day last year. David, then a 12-year-old seventh grader, had been virtually scalped in the accident; his neck was fractured in two places, and his left hand was almost severed. By comparison, though, David was the fortunate one. John's face had been shattered, he had inner-cranial bleeding and his skull was swelling to the limits of toleration. Surgeons performed a tracheotomy in his neck because his air passageways were nearly squeezed shut.

Below his head, John's injuries were only slightly less grievous. He had broken ribs where the yoke had rammed into his chest before smashing into his face. The impact had also caused a clot in the artery of the lung. Both bones in his left forearm were fractured, as was the femur of his right leg.

Both father and son were in comas.

Meanwhile, at the scene of the accident, not quite 20 miles to the northwest, an investigator picking through the cockpit of a crumpled Piper Cherokee had discovered two unused tickets to the previous night's Peach Bowl in Atlanta between the Maryland Terps and the University of Tennessee.

That's where John and David had been headed when they took off Dec. 31, 2002, from Tipton Airport in Odenton, not far from their Severna Park home. The pair had logged many hours together in rented planes during the previous four years, ever since John, a software engineer, had achieved his childhood dream of attaining his pilot's license.

Since then, he had flown more than 500 hours, had been instrument-rated and was working toward his commercial pilot's license. His long-term goal was certification as a flight instructor. Being a pilot, he felt, had completed him, given him a sense of freedom and confidence.

David, who prefers computer games to athletics, had happily piggybacked on his father's passion. He often accompanied him in the skies, and sometimes got to steer from the co-pilot's seat. There were jaunts to the Eastern Shore, to Myrtle Beach, to Long Island, where John was raised. The high point each year were their trips to Oshkosh, Wis., for the big annual air show.

So it was hardly out of the ordinary that a week before the Peach Bowl, John suggested the pair fly down to Atlanta for the game. Amy, who is a nurse, didn't mind. She and their 14-year-old daughter, Megan, would have a girls' night out on New Year's Eve, at First Night in Annapolis. "We were going to have an estrogen holiday if they were going to have a testosterone one," is how Amy, 46, puts it.

The boys flew off in the single engine four-seater at mid-morning. It wasn't a bad day for flying, except for the strong headwinds. After a couple of hours, John brought the plane down for a quick bathroom break in Danville, Va., near the North Carolina border. While there, he decided to refuel.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board's preliminary report, the pair took off from Danville at 1:35. What John knows of their trip is educated conjecture, based on David's limited memories, investigative records and supposition. To this day, John himself cannot remember the flight.

Because of the headwinds, it was a bumpy trip. As they neared Atlanta after 5 p.m., the fuel gauge seemed to indicate that they were out of gas, which did not square with John's calculations. But in turbulent weather, certain types of fuel gauges are unreliable because measurements are based on a "float" in the fuel tank that bounces erratically in rough weather. Pilots are trained not to rely on gauges. They must be able to estimate fuel amounts based on speed, air conditions, time and distance.

Having taken note of all those factors, John seemed to have calculated that whatever the gauge was telling him, he had ample fuel left.

But as the plane descended from the clouds and into more serene air, the fuel gauge stabilized. It held firm at "Empty."

At 5:30 p.m., now 12 miles from Fulton County Airport, John radioed traffic control that he had lost engine power. A minute later, radar and radio contact with the plane ended.

David had been asleep under blankets in the second row of seats when he awoke to his father's urgent radio call. As the plane lost altitude, David shrank into his jacket. He believed his life was over.

John was apparently scanning the terrain for a clearing, preferably a ballfield or a golf course. Without engine power, he would have known that he couldn't afford to be choosy. In a residential neighborhood, he spotted a stretch that was about 50 feet by 30 feet. Even if everything went well, it would have been a tight fit, "like landing on a postage stamp," Detective Steven Gaynor of the Cobb County (Ga.) Fire Department would recall a year later.

John would have to set the plane down as soon as he cleared a final line of trees if he was to have any chance of stopping it before hitting houses or trees at the far end of the clearing. That was obviously his intention, but as he lowered the plane in the darkness, the tip of his left wing clipped the crown of some trees. It was enough to ruin the landing. The Cherokee's nose jerked downward and the plane plowed into a backyard patio, missing a house - an occupied one - by 10 feet. They were less than five miles from the airport.

David was rushed to the hospital by helicopter. It took an hour for rescuers to peel back the cockpit enough to extricate John, all 6 foot 6 inches of him, and send him on his way by ambulance.

As surgeons labored to save the lives of father and son, in Annapolis, Amy and Megan grew increasingly alarmed that John had not called after landing, his unvarying practice. At 10:30 p.m., they aborted their evening out and headed home, where they found an urgent note from Anne Arundel County police directing them to go next door. Their neighbors were ready with cash and tickets for a flight to Atlanta early in the morning. In a call to the hospital that night, Amy was told that the odds that John would be alive by the time she arrived were less than 50 percent.

It would be a harrowing night, only to be followed by harrowing days. For John, the dangers came insistently and from every direction - swelling in the brain, infections, pneumonia, sepsis. Surgeries were performed. Rods, pins, plates and bolts were inserted. It was only after two weeks that doctors seemed to fully believe that he would make it.

David came around much more quickly. He awakened soon after Amy arrived mid-morning on Jan. 1. "Did I miss the game?" he asked when he saw her, and then burst into tears. For a few days, there was worry that he would lose his hand. He was also waking from nightmares, screaming. His mother began sleeping on a futon in his hospital room.

But father and son improved, David to the point that he was released from the hospital after about 10 days. John's surgeons felt he was strong enough to bear a flight to Baltimore on Jan. 16. He spent two days at Maryland Shock Trauma Center and another 10 at Kernan, the rehabilitation hospital is west Baltimore. Miraculously, on Jan. 28, just short of a month after the crash, John went home.

For both David and John, there would be months of recovery, rehabilitation and therapy. John endured four additional surgeries and was not able to go back to work until October. But he pushed himself like an athlete in training, to regain his pre-crash physical condition as much as possible. Shortly before the one-year anniversary of the crash, he was once again pounding up and down a basketball court.

To heal mentally, however, John was convinced he needed to return to the skies. "Flying," he said one year to the day after the crash, "is a big part of who I am. I know I won't be completely over this accident until I'm able to do what I did before, and flying is the last piece of it."

Amy was far from convinced. "He brought it up in August that he wanted to get his flying license again. [Because of the accident, the FAA requires a re-examination before John can fly by himself again.] I said absolutely not. No way. I said I'd rather hand him divorce papers than papers that said he could fly again."

She knew he wasn't cavalier about the accident. Although John exudes rationality and confidence, she said he was tortured by the crash and his responsibility. He cannot understand how he could have made so tragic a mistake about the fuel supply, yet can offer no other explanation for what happened. "He just had a wicked hard time, knowing he had caused David to be hurt. He kept beating himself up over it. In tears, crying a lot."

Still, he wanted to fly again. Without telling Amy, he went up late last year with his instructor, Ken Shaffer, but didn't do much of the flying himself and let Ken handle takeoff and landing.

As for Amy, she knew John's flying was not a dead issue. She hoped he would decide he had had his fill of flying, but in her heart she knew that was never likely. Still, she resisted giving her assent until an uncle of hers from Seattle, a renowned pediatrician as well as an outdoorsman, weighed in. He wrote her a Christmas card about his own life-threatening experiences on boats. He was able to put those nightmares behind him, he said, only by returning to the water. John, he told her, needed to return to the air.

Amy knew he was right. She also knew the old cliche about getting back on the horse. Quite literally, in fact. She had fallen from a horse as a child, and her mother never let her get on again. "I didn't want this to be John's horse," she said.

Amy, who has been married to John nearly 25 years, knew that if she prevented him from flying again, he would never be happy; ultimately, neither would she.

Shortly before New Year's Day, she gave John her OK, although her permission would not extend to David. She insisted that her son's feet remain on the ground for the foreseeable future.

And so, on the morning of Jan. 14, with Ken in the co-pilot seat, John nosed the Cessna into the air and headed eastward, over the frozen South River and across an ice-covered Chesapeake Bay. The cold seemed to have drained everything in the landscape of color although not beauty.

Ken, casual and encouraging, took John through a series of maneuvers - turns, dips, stalls and a half-dozen or so landings at an Easton airport. Occasionally, the instructor made suggestions, a little more speed here, nose up a bit there, but overall Ken pronounced himself satisfied. "Not bad for a one-year layoff," he said.

John complained of feeling rusty, less instinctive than he remembered. But it still felt right to be up in the air again.

An hour after takeoff, he floated back over the Lee Airport runway. A few feet from the ground, a strong crosswind cuffed the little plane, but John corrected for it and gently put the Cessna down.

On the ground, no one seemed to have noticed a thing.

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