A September Saturday in 1991 When A Plane Crashed On Me

Below is the basic accident information.  I spent quite a while figuring this out after being unable to locate the newspaper archives or links.

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On a Saturday back in September,1991, I skipped work for the first time while working at Cargill. My supervisor at the time had decided that I couldn’t use any time off, even though miscreants all around me were getting days off without notice. I called in “sick,” as technically I was sick of my supervisor’s nonsense. After taking a long walk, drinking a river of coffee and reading for a few hours, I went to rent some movies. I don’t know what the other movie was but I’ll never forget renting “Predator 2.” My roommate, the owner of the trailer I lived in, had went on a rare short trip with his son out of town. (That day was  a rare confluence of unusual conditions.)

I had started the movie and put on my headphones. In those days, it was high technology to wire a direct connection from the horrible tvs of the time directly to the headphones and add an extra length of wire. “Predator 2” is a very sound effect-laden movie at the beginning. I might as well have been sitting inside a marching band practice. I hadn’t been watching very long when a sound very much like a diesel 18-wheeler thundered even through my headphones. The first thought that went through my mind was that someone had decided to drive a large truck literally through the trailer park. The trailer seemed to jump a little and vibrate. I pulled the headphones off and couldn’t make sense of the sounds I was actually hearing.

I jumped up and ran the length of the trailer, opening the back door which faced West. Looking up, all I could focus on was a grey-silver jacket, supported by a billowing parachute. I looked down and to the right of the small steps off the trailer and saw a human body. It was somewhat mangled and the head had suffered the worst trauma. The window ac unit above him had heat dissipation metalwork and those ridges were full of flesh and other body matter. I honestly can’t remember how long I stood there in shock. When it registered that a plane had crashed and the pilot lay dead at my feet I’m not sure. But it is the first or second most surreal moment of my life.

It turns out that most of the plane was slightly South of my trailer, a few feet away, mostly propped up by a massive growth of shrubs and short trees. (In an unrelated twist, the spot where the plane stopped is the same location where I endured my other horrific surprise in life, years later.)

I don’t know how I would feel if I were a family member of Joseph Frasca reading this, but in some immeasurable way we were connected by the pilot’s death. Knowing now that he was returning home to his family after being honored with being one of the nation’s premier stunt pilots makes it much worse for me. He was flying back from a U.S. National Aerobatic Contest. He was 34 years old and already considered to be one of the premier pilots of his day. When I researched the incident to write this, I was deeply saddened to know that he had been so young. I hadn’t remembered that fact in any way.

Joseph Frasca was also the son of Rudy Frasca, owner of Frasca International, which builds flight simulators for places all over the world. Joseph’s life would have been one full of adventure and opportunity. Many sources refer to the plane that crashed on Arkansas way back in September, 1991 as ‘experimental.’ Most agree that if Joseph would have simply had his chute connected for safety instead of for comfort, his life would not have needlessly ended. But then I wouldn’t have learned just how common it is for planes or pieces of them to fall from the sky.

The plane falling out of the sky had a profound effect upon me. Despite being raised by tough people and having already learned about the frailty of life, I learned anew the stupidity of thinking that any aspect of life could be “safe.” It had been forced upon me to remember that dangers were constantly at my fingertips, around hidden corners, waiting to pounce like an army of gleeful gremlins. It is difficult to explain to someone else who has never experienced something so bizarrely out of tune with normal life. I used to laugh about the coincidences of playing hooky from work for the first time and being home alone – it was difficult to not make connections between total accident and blind providence.

A couple of days after the plane crash I had eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich from the cafeteria vending machines at work. Coming back from break, it struck me that the color and consistency was very similar to the dead pilot as he laid next to the trailer. Without warning, I projectile vomited in the entryway to one of the huge food coolers. (I felt bad, because I didn’t clean it up.)

Someone associated with the pilot’s insurance sent me to talk to a psychiatrist. Of course, it was more for their peace of mind than mine, even though many who knew me joked “It’s about time” when they heard the news.  But after talking to the shrink for a few minutes, I got up to go to the bathroom. I spewed another geyser of vomit all across her very clean and organized waiting area, along the wall, and even up the wall. It was terrible. The secretary/office person could not have been more surprised. She was seated just a few feet away. Her eyes were incredibly wide. I believe they had to call a professional office cleaner to come deal with my mess. It was a little strange, as I wasn’t one to normally be squeamish or think things like a plane crash would upset me. I had no other symptoms whatsoever, and my mind wasn’t consumed by thoughts of the crash.

(In yet another coincidence, it turns out that the psychiatrist I went to for that single visit was the mother of my next door neighbor not too long after. He had heard of the infamous vomiting episode and laughed when I told him I was the person responsible. I think the volume of my sickness became an anecdotal legend.)

When an insurance adjuster came to visit with me and Ray, the trailer’s owner, he told me that the pilot had not fastened his leg harness or something along that line. He had been returning to Illinois from Texas from a stunt/flying show where he had just qualified to be on the US flight team. It turned out to be common for pilots to do this. A freak mechanical issue affected the plane. It was probably a very quick fall. His body cracked the middle of the trailer when he hit. I’m surmising that he hit the trailer at a very odd angle, turned and then hit the ac unit the rear window with a great deal of force. His terror was undoubtedly real, but also probably very quick and confusing.  I don’t remember him being so young, looking back.

During my research for this post, I was surprised to find group discussions from 1991 in Illinois. Many pilots wondered why he had abandoned the plane, knowing it was headed for a populated trailer park late in the morning on a Saturday. I had remembered him being thrown out of the plane, but perhaps my memory is weak on this point? It is a point to consider what must have went through his mind as he fell to the ground, knowing that his plane was directly above many unaware people.

It turns out that the insurance company paid for the hours of work I missed, the trailer, everything around it, and even offered to pay for ongoing psychological counseling – and also would have paid for up to a year of lost wages without question had I decided the crash had fried me mentally. The adjusters and insurance companies evidently had seen it all at some point and found it to be cheaper to be generous up front. I used to think that I should have taken a year off to read and relax.

Minutes after the plane crashed, people started appearing out of nowhere. A few FBI personnel were among the first to arrive. I don’t know where they had been working, but they had to have been close. In an hour, the scene was crowded with firemen, police, and reporters and dozens of spectators. Even my Aunt Ardith made an appearance at the edge of the NTSB tape. When I called the local news station, it was difficult to convince them that I lived in the trailer in question, mostly because of my crazy name.

For a while after the plane crash, much of our side of the trailer park didn’t have cable and we couldn’t figure out why. It turns out that the plane had penetrated the ground at one point in the exact location where the main trunk line for the cable service was buried, severing the line totally. I won’t write a novel trying to describe how chaotic it was for the rest of the day.

(In another twist, the ex-girlfriend of someone I had worked with knocked on the back door very late in the day. I couldn’t figure out why she was knocking on my door. I’m sure I had a stupid, incredulous look on my face when I saw her standing there, hand raised to knock on the door again. It turns out she was somehow involved with one of the news people taking  pictures. She, of course, verified to everyone that my name really was “X.”)

When my roommate Ray came home to his trailer later, he could not have been more surprised. My reputation for pulling pranks and being crazy might have made it hard for him to initially believe my story, but the look on his face was a strange evolution of disbelief, shock and then bewilderment. It turns out that he had heard of a plane crash in Johnson on the radio and had joked about the possibility of it being in the trailer park.

Reading the pilot’s biography and looking back into the past from 24 years ago, I see what happened from a much different perspective. A great pilot died that day, probably without necessity. Years of expertise were ignored and a strange series of unexpected surprises left him without any luck to fall back on. And it changed me in some way, forever.

I used to have a biography and a picture of Joseph Frasca. His exact appearance eludes me, but the idea of how young he was is really the only important thing to hold close. Sometimes, as I see little dots floating above me, I wonder about Joseph and our crossed path all those years ago. Now that I live closer to an airport, I think of him more often. I’m pleased to know that his family is doing exceedingly well and that Joseph has an aviation scholarship in his honor.

Meanwhile, too, I know that in distinct places all over the world, those dots are falling from the sky with great frequency, disturbing the lives of those below.