Then & Now: Trip Pittman in 2007, after surviving a plane crash that resulted in burn wounds to his arm and, right, as an Alabama senator since 2007.
Ten years ago to this day, Trip Pittman closed his eyes, tucked his head and prepared to die.
He was the passenger inside a single-prop 1970 Bellanca Super Viking that had experienced engine problems about 4,000 feet above the swamps of northwest Florida.
"How do you forget something like that," said Pittman, who was elected to the Alabama state Senate eight months after surviving the airplane crash. "I wasn't scared but I was a little sad thinking that you're at the end of physical life and I remember hitting the trees and blacking out thinking that it was over."
But it wasn't. Pittman came back to consciousness moments after the plane had crashed into trees within a remote area near Fountain, Fla.
The memories of the day's events have become more vivid in recent weeks, Pittman said, as he contemplates a political future that began while he was recovering from injuries he sustained in the crash.
"People would come up to you and say, 'God has a plan for you, what will you do?'" said Pittman, a Republican who lives in Montrose with his wife of 28 years, Lynn. They have three grown children.
"It was after I got out of the hospital and stayed home for about a month and people would come by and see you and you'd write 'Thank You' notes and give you flowers and you'd have conversations ... at some point, I said I would like to run for office."
Pittman was a 46-year-old tractor dealer at the time of the crash. A few months later, he was running for the vacated Senate seat occupied at the time by Bradley Byrne, who is now in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Pittman defeated a better-financed opponent during the Republican runoff in September, before winning a special election to fill the District 32 seat in October.
Pittman has been in office ever since, but questions loom as to his future. He's opting not to seek re-election in 2018, and the memories of the plane crash are starting to flood back, he said.
"You start thinking about things and the door opens and here you are about to make a decision not to run for office again," said Pittman, saying he's "still praying about" a possible run for higher office. Pittman was among the few politicians from coastal Alabama interviewed by Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley to replace U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions.
Sessions resigned from the Senate seat this month to become President Donald Trump's choice for attorney general.
Bentley, instead, chose Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange to fill Sessions' seat.
"It's very emotional still and it makes you reminisce when you have an anniversary on something that led you to believe where you are now," said Pittman. "I tell people I lived through the end of the crash, but must've hit my head because I decided to run for office."
Pittman suffered second- and third-degree burns to his face and arms, covering about 10 percent of his body. The plane's pilot, Roger James of Daphne, also survived after suffering first- and second-degree burns.
Pittman spent eight days at the University of South Alabama burn unit, and had a skin graft on his left forearm.
The following is the Mobile Press-Register account of Pittman's plane crash survival printed on March 26, 2007.
Fliers' story of survival
Two Baldwin men who crashed into a swamp in northern Florida last month tell their tale
By DAVID FERRARA
Smoke drifted from the dashboard.
The pilot killed the electrical system. He checked the fuel gauge. And the passenger prepared to die.
Two Baldwin County businessmen - Roger James, the pilot, and Lee "Trip" Pittman, his passenger - were 4,500 feet in the air, somewhere over the swamps of northwest Florida last month.
The engine coughed and sputtered.
The landing gear on the single-prop 1970 Bellanca Super Viking seemed to have malfunctioned, sparking a fire.
James saw two fields: one about a mile away, another slightly farther. But with a 30-knot headwind, they didn't have enough altitude to get to either. He made a split-second decision, straightened the aircraft and picked out a big, old cedar tree. It looked like the softest place to land, a little higher than the rest. He aimed for it.
Struck at just the right angle, the cedar's branches would slow the plane's momentum. They could live.
James clutched the yoke, and Pittman tucked his head down. Both men closed their eyes.
Four thousand feet.
"Basically, I thought it was all over with," Pittman said recently, recalling details of the crash in an interview with the Press-Register. "I remember hearing us hit four, maybe five trees. Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!"
Miraculously, they survived. And a month later, they're almost completely healed.
Pittman, who suffered the more serious injuries, can't stop bragging about the treatment he received at the University of South Alabama Medical Center. As recently as Friday, James took off from Foley Airport for an hour-long trip to "get checked out" for a solo flight in a rental plane.
On that clear but windy Saturday afternoon in mid-February, they had been flying back to the Fairhope Municipal Airport from Tallahassee, where Pittman looked to purchase some equipment for his tractor business.
The single-engine four-seater smacked the ground, upright.
Flames thrust at their faces, arms and legs.
Pittman tried to muscle his door open. Wouldn't budge. James shouldered him and the two flung themselves out.
"I'm on fire," James said. "It's hurting."
They fell into the soggy grass and rolled.
"I could look back and see the airplane, and the whole cabin and tail section disintegrated," James said. "When I was in that roll, it was there. And by the time I finished the roll, it was gone."
The men were bleeding and burnt - not to mention, practically in the middle of nowhere.
"But overall in pretty good shape," Pittman said.
Gene Russell's trailer in Fountain, Fla., was about the only home for miles.
He had been tinkering with his old Thunderbird when he heard the crash, probably 150 yards away.
"Ain't nothing supposed to be making noise in that swamp," Russell said in a recent telephone interview.
He popped his head up, saw the fire and bolted toward the plane.
"I seen them right away," Russell said.
"Come on with me, and I'll call 911," he recalled telling the men.
"I was surprised that they was alive. They was just kind of a little disoriented."
When the ambulance finally arrived, a paramedic took their blood pressure, poured saline on their burns and wrapped them in gauze. The driver told them they'd be OK.
They were whisked to Bay Medical Center in Panama City, a 40-minute ride.
But they needed better treatment.
James, 61, suffered first- and second-degree burns to his hands, face and ears.
Pittman, 46, was worse off. Second- and third-degree burns to his face, arms and face, covering about 10 percent of his body.
What about the burn center at the University of South Alabama Medical Center, a doctor asked. They'd have to take a helicopter.
They arrived early Sunday morning. James was released from the hospital after a day. But Pittman spent eight days in the burn unit. He had a skin graft on his left forearm.
For weeks, Pittman has gone to the fourth floor of the medical center for wound treatment and physical therapy. A nutritionist put him on a special diet, and he'll have to protect his skin for a year. He regularly sees a team at the hospital: Jay DiFusco, the internist; Kimberly Curtis, the registered nurse; Sharon Richard-Hughes, the nurse practitioner; Angela Duffy, the nurse manager; Dr. Arnold Luterman, who runs the hospital's burn unit; and a host of others.
The unit is one of only a few in the Southeast, with the nearest in Gainesville, Fla.
The Mobile hospital treats about 500 adults and as many as 200 children a year for burns, making it one of the top 10 busiest in the country, according to Luterman. The burn team serves an area with about 2 million people in south Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. There are only about 1,700 burn beds in the United States.
Last year, the burn unit had to turn away more than 100 patients, Luterman said.
"If a bomb went off in the United States, God help us," Luterman said. "There's a serious shortage in terms of beds."
Pittman said he has been inspired by the care he received and wants to help raise awareness and funding for burn care at the medical center.
"There are always things they could use to make their job better," Pittman said. "It's always good to be appreciated."
He acquired a new outlook since the crash.
"You're just really so alert to everything that's going on in life because you've been there," Pittman said. "You thought you were going to die. You live through something like that, and you just want to appreciate everything."
The recovery process for James has been much quicker.
The Daphne resident had flown about 200 hours in the Viking, which he owned for seven years. He works in excavation, and rebuilt a 1946 Aeronca Champ that he plans to fly again soon.
In conversation, he shrugs off the crash.
"It's just another experience," he said. "Been to Vietnam, been shot at, had mortar rounds go off and pull me out of bed at night. It's just another part of my life."
But Pittman hasn't been in the air since the emergency helicopter ride.
"Will I fly again? Yes," Pittman said. "Am I going to be careful in how I fly and when I fly. You know, flying is safe, but things can go wrong fast.
"We were just blessed. The good Lord was looking after us. I don't shy away from saying it was a miracle for us to come through."
Story, photos and comments: http://www.al.com
Additional Participating Entities:
Federal Aviation Administration/Flight Standards District Office; Birmingham, Alabama
Teledyne Continental Motors, Inc.; Mobile, Alabama
Alexandria Aircraft LLC; Alexandria, Minnesota
Aviation Accident Final Report - National Transportation Safety Board: https://app.ntsb.gov/pdf
Aviation Accident Data Summary - National Transportation Safety Board: https://app.ntsb.gov/pdf
NTSB Identification: MIA07LA050
The docket is stored in the Docket Management System (DMS). Please contact Records Management Division
Accident occurred Saturday, February 17, 2007 in Fountain, FL
Probable Cause Approval Date: 08/28/2008
Aircraft: Bellanca 17-30A, registration: N6641V
Injuries: 2 Serious.
NTSB investigators may not have traveled in support of this investigation and used data provided by various sources to prepare this aircraft accident report.
The airplane experienced an electrical short and total loss of engine power during cruise flight. Examination of the wreckage revealed that the airplane's left engine exhaust muffler fractured resulting in an exhaust leak. The nacelle electrical wiring run was proximate to the leak, resulting in a nose landing gear indication discrepancy and the magneto "P" leads to ground out. The total loss of engine power forced an off airport landing into trees. The inspection procedures in the Airworthiness Directive for the exhaust system were inadequate to detect the crack in the aft section of the muffler.
The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident as follows:
A loss of engine power due to a cracked engine exhaust muffler. Contributing to the accident were the inadequate inspection procedures of the muffler system and the routing of the "P" leads wiring for the magnetos.
On February 17, 2007, about 1350 central standard time, a Bellanca 17-30A, N6641V, registered to and operated by a private individual, impacted trees during a forced landing in Fountain, Florida. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed at the time and a visual flight rules (VFR) flight plan was filed for the 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 91 personal flight from Tallahassee, Florida, to Fairhope, Alabama. The certificated private pilot and the passenger were seriously injured, and the airplane was destroyed from a postcrash fire. The flight originated from the Tallahassee Commercial Airport, earlier that day, about 1245.
The pilot stated that during cruise flight, at 4,500 feet mean sea level, he noticed the nose landing gear position light illuminate. He advised the air traffic controller at the Tyndall Approach Control, which was giving him VFR advisories at the time. The controller arranged for another airplane in the area to rendezvous with the accident airplane for a visual inspection of the nose gear. As the pilot was waiting for the second airplane to arrive, he lowered the gear and observed three green lights. Upon retracting the gear, all three lights extinguished. The nose gear light immediately illuminated again and the pilot saw smoke coming from the vicinity of the electrical master switch. The switch was turned off and the smoke dissipated. A few seconds later, the engine lost power, but the propeller was still windmilling. The pilot switched fuel tanks but did not elect a restart due to the suspected short in the electrical system. The pilot observed an open field and attempted to land in the open area; however, he was not able to reach the area and landed in trees. A postcrash fire ensued; he and the passenger were able to get out of the airplane before the fire destroyed it.
The postrecovery wreckage examination conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board revealed the aft one-third of the left muffler was crushed. The ball joint was separated from the muffler at the weld and remained attached to the tailpipe/ resonator. The clamp remained in place on the left ball joint with its associated hardware. The ball joint was not damaged. The amphenol connector/cannon plug located on the left side of the firewall, which houses the electrical wiring for the nose landing gear indication and the "P" leads for the engine's magnetos, was fire damaged. The routing of those wires was in the proximity of the separated muffler ball joint. The left muffler and the ball joint assembly were sent to the Safety Board Office of Research and Engineering Materials Laboratory Division. The examination revealed, among additional findings, a fracture from the 1:30 o'clock to 5:30 o'clock position on the circumferential weld of the muffler aft tube, which was completely covered with oxidation and edges of the fracture were rounded consistent with the presence of a preexisting crack or through-the-wall corrosion.
The last annual inspection to the accident airplane was September 20, 2006, at a total airframe time of 2,639.7 hours, which was about 11 hours before the accident flight. Airworthiness Directive (AD) 76-23-03R1, dated November 7, 1986, which calls for an inspection of the muffler and tailpipe areas, was complied. The mentioned AD states "To prevent exhaust system failures which could result in cabin air contamination and heat damage to components in the nacelle. Visually inspect the muffler and tailpipe assemblies for cracks paying particular attention to the ball joint welds and the outlets of the muffler and resonator."