(June 2011) "Shortly after takeoff, I knew we were in trouble — everything looked, acted and sounded OK, but I watched the vertical speed indicator drop to zero. Knowing we had taken off from a strip located down in a mountain valley, that’s not a good thing. It was just after dusk, so I couldn’t see much, but I saw the tops of the trees — some of which were now above the wingtips. What I could not see was what was directly ahead because of the deck angle. I was concentrating on maintaining best angle of climb speed and checking that I had full power. We were in big trouble.”
Sandy Schenk was telling me all this in a cold, dispassionate voice, as if he were a highly experienced surgeon discussing a difficult case that turned out badly. This is not surprising, because a talented surgeon is exactly what Schenk is. What is surprising is the response this pilot surgeon had to a devastating accident that left him severely burned and subjected him to 24 surgical procedures. You can see the skin grafts on his face, and you can easily see the stubs he has for fingers when you meet him. All the more surprising, then, is this: Schenk is a busy surgeon today, and he has logged 2,000 hours since the accident. He owns and flies a Piper Seneca as you read this. Talk about getting back on the horse that threw you.
I have known Sandy Schenk in that distant-acquaintance sort of way since we were both young academic surgeons. We’d see each other at meetings and talk about our lives and our flying. He was a young surgeon at the University of Virginia when I was the same at the University of Chicago. We ran in the same circles.
Then Sandy disappeared. He wasn’t at the meetings; I didn’t see his face. There was the rumor of an airplane accident. The rumors proved true. The date was Jan. 11, 1984. The story is this:
Schenk and another young colleague, whom I also know, had received word the day before that they had just passed the certifying exam for the American Board of Surgery. This is the ultimate check ride. None of us would make it in surgery without this type rating in our pocket. The young surgeons decided to celebrate the following day by playing hooky with an outing to a ski resort on the Virginia-West Virginia border. Schenk volunteered to fly them and two others in a rented T-tail Lance.
Schenk was no novice. He had 1,500 hours under his belt by then. He caught the chronic flying undulating fever while in college at the University of Rochester as an undergraduate student. He was a student of such accomplishment that he was selected to enter medical school after just three undergraduate years of college. The medical school was Duke University, one of the most competitive in the country.
After training, Schenk and his buddy, also a Duke-trained surgeon, migrated to Charlottesville, Virginia, where they have been ever since. When I was invited to give a talk at UVA recently, I was delighted to find Schenk sitting next to me at the customary dinner that academic institutions put on for visiting firemen. What I didn’t know, and had always been reluctant to ask about, is that he’s both flying and operating again. The story sounds remarkable, but when you talk to him, he makes it all sound sort of expected.
“You have a choice to make,” he told me as he recounted the accident and its aftermath.
The day started out with high spirits and expectations. Schenk had flown into Bryce Mountain airport “four or five times before” but never in the Lance and never with four souls on board. “The runway didn’t look short on the way in,” he said. “It had a light dusting of snow. The FAA has since displaced the threshold.”
The flight out started just after dusk.
“I knew the airplane to be an anemic climber. I had remembered a takeoff from sea level in the summer, when I attributed the poor rate of climb to my misjudgment of the density altitude on a hot day. Now I was not climbing and I could not see ahead. In retrospect, I think that airplane almost stopped climbing when the gear was in transit. I really had no plan B.”
The airplane hit a building under construction. Tail first.