Ten years ago today I crash landed an airplane on Shark’s Tooth Golf Course in Florida. It’s amazing to think it has already been ten years since this happened. The story behind this life-changing event has a great testimony of Faith, Unity, Love and Life (FULL) and I thought I would share. It is interesting that these four things spell the word FULL, because full is what the life of everyone involved in the crash has become. I know most don’t like reading really long blog posts, so I will try my best to make this as short as I can. If you just want to read the news story about the crash landing, you can read it here.
This testimony begins with Justin and Rose Langham. You see, I met Justin and Rose at the same time they both met; our first week of college at Oklahoma Christian University. Justin and Rose fell in love and were married just 6 months prior to my wife and me. Tragically, on Valentine’s Day 2010, Rose passed away suddenly from a brain aneurysm. During this trial, Justin was in the Air Force and stationed in Florida as well–just a few short miles away from where I was stationed–but neither of us knew this. We soon got in contact and began to spend a lot of time together. My wife was away finishing her final semester of nursing school, and Justin was going through the hardest trial of his life, so as any good friend would do, I just tried to spend quality time with him doing things that made him smile. One of the things he always wanted to do was fly an airplane, so that’s what we did. Justin and I would rent planes from the Destin airport and fly up and down the beach or maybe do a lunch-and-back to Dauphin Island airport.
About a month prior to the golf course landing, Rose’s cousins Yeshua and Trish contacted me on Facebook, and we planned a surprise birthday party for Justin. One of the things Rose would always do for Justin was celebrate his birthday by doing something really cool. Rose was always so loving, creative and just flat out fun to be around, so we thought we would attempt to do the same. We came up with an elaborate plan to go indoor skydiving and fly down to Orlando in one of the rented planes. We met at Destin airport early for the flight, and for some reason, the original C172 we had rented was currently flying, so we had to take the backup plane. We took off around 0900 and flew along the beach at around 500 feet or so until starting the climb about 20 miles east of Destin. Around 3,000 feet our engine suddenly just went to idle, and the throttle would no longer work. I thought about restarting, but how do you restart an engine that is on? It was like going up a hill in your car, then letting off on the gas pedal, and then pushing the gas pedal again, but it would work. This throttle was stuck at idle no matter what we did.
To my right was the Gulf of Mexico, straight ahead was a busy beach, off to my left was a bridge with a lot of cars on it. Praise God at my 9 o’clock there was Shark’s Tooth Golf Course! I decided to zoom the aircraft (this is where you trade airspeed for altitude and get as high as you can) and gained about 500 feet before pitching for the 65-knot glide speed for the Cessna, and we began our descent to Hole 17. A funny thing happened during this emergency: when I declared the emergency with air traffic control, they actually asked me what golf course I was landing on. This is funny because it’s not like there are big signs from the air that tell you what things are (and it was just a funny question). However, this was also a distraction for Yeshua, who was in the co-pilot seat, and he pulled out his iPhone and tried to use Google maps to let them know where we were landing.
There is a procedure we do in the military when we lose our engine. Because I had previously flown multi-engine jets, I had just learned this emergency landing procedure (ELP). It involves imaginary rings (keys) in the sky that put you in a safe position to land. Also, a month prior to this happening, a friend told me about losing his engine out of the Destin airport (in his personal airplane) and landing on the Destin Golf Course. “If Bill Tuttle can do it, I can do it,” I thought to myself. We reached High Key at 2,000 feet then Low Key at 1,000. We just brushed the tops of the 150-foot trees and then dodged the sand traps by the green (my approach end) of Hole 17. It was like landing in a shoe box. There were huge trees on either end; I had to slip the aircraft to get it down quickly and in the safest position to ensure our survival. I was initially planning to land on Hole 18, which lined up directly with the club house, but there was someone golfing right in the middle, and I didn’t want to bother them. 🙂 Once touching down, the aircraft didn’t want to stop with all the morning dew on the grass. We slipped and slid to the end of the fairway until we were finally stopped abruptly by the bushes and sand at the end. I turned everything off and completed the checklists and we egressed the aircraft. Here is a video that Trisha shot just after exiting the plane.
This was Yeshua and Trisha’s first time flying in a small airplane. Imagine that for a second…After egressing the aircraft, we all headed towards the club house, which was funny because none of them saw us land, and here we come from out of the woods in shorts and t-shirts at a private golf course. They asked us how they could help, and I pointed back over my should and said, “See that airplane.” I didn’t even finish before they realized what had happened and from then on treated us like royalty. They made us food and gave us a bag to put all of our stuff in. They even gave us a souvenir golf tee set!
So I mentioned being FULL at the beginning of this post. Let me break it down for you using the FULL acronym from above. Military folk love acronyms, you know!
F – Faith
Did you know that the name Yeshua is Hebrew for Jesus? Now before you stop reading because I threw out the J word, think about this for a moment and picture yourself as if you were in an airplane crash. Jesus was literally my co-pilot. As a man of faith, this is really cool! Plus how many people do you know that can literally say Jesus was their co-pilot? For further reading on the name Yeshua go here.
U – Unity
How close do you think all the parties involved (and our families) became? My marriage got better. Yeshua and Trisha’s marriage got better. My friendship with Justin became even closer. I can still taste the dinner that we had that night. We became more united as friends and with those around us based on this experience.
L – Love
What’s love got to do with it? Well, when you have been through a life-and-death experience, it makes you look at the world around you a little differently. I already mentioned how our marriages, friendships and relationships in general got better, but love was also knocking at the door. You see Justin and Rose were never able to have children, even though they had tried for years. Justin met a beautiful girl name Cheralyn in a grief share group, and they fell in love. They both had lost spouses, and both had never had children, and this is where the final L of Life comes in.
L – Life
Not only were our lives spared that day, but through this trial, life was produced. Justin and Cheralyn got married and now have two beautiful children. Yeshua and Trisha went on to have three beautiful babies of their own. Oh, and three days after the crash, my wife and I found out we were expecting our first baby girl, and we have since been blessed with five babies–three with us here on earth and two in heaven for a total of four kiddos. This is nine lives that would never had been born had we not lived through this crash.
Many want to focus on all the bad things that are happening in our country and in our world right now with COVID-19 and the election coming up. A kingdom divided against itself will not stand. We must focus on becoming FULL. We must have faith in our country and the men and women that serve to protect it. Going through the hard times make us closer and give us unity that we need. Love is something that should be a given to everyone you meet, no matter who they are or what they believe. Life comes through love, which produces unity and strengthens faith. Will you choose to be FULL today? Leave a comment below.