Expert Pilot and Highly Regarded Curator of Historic Aircraft
Crashes in Demonstration Flight
Loses Foot but is determined to get back into Cockpit
John Sessions, who founded a local aircraft museum, was grounded after crashing last summer.
Aviation is a fickle vocation and avocation. It gives great pleasure to aviators, but it has the capacity to inflict great pain. This story about a friend, John Sessions, highlights the positive and negative aspects of aviation’s impact on john, but it sends an even better story about the spirit of this human, aviator and good guy:
MUKILTEO — John Sessions had barely coaxed the vintage biplane airborne when things started to go wrong.
The historic aircraft collector and pilot was taking four spectators on a scenic flight one Saturday afternoon in August, after the day’s main event at the Abbotsford International Airshow in British Columbia.
When Sessions taxied out, there had been a crosswind. The weather had been acting up earlier in the day. The conditions seemed like nothing, however, that the restored de Havilland Dragon Rapide and its pilot shouldn’t have been able to handle. He had flown another group in the rare 1930s airliner that morning and performed in a World War II-era fighter earlier in the afternoon.
This flight didn’t go so smoothly.
Once aloft in the biplane, Sessions began to lose control. He tried to keep it over the runway, as he attempted to gain airspeed.
“I went to the right, went to the left, it went to the right a second time and touched the right wing,” Sessions said. “When the right wing tip did touch, it whipped the nose down into the runway. It’s a one-pilot airplane. And the nose is made from wood and fabric, primarily, with a few metal strips between the panels of the windscreen. So I’m very lucky to be alive.”
A minute or less into flight, the immaculately restored Art Deco aircraft’s front end and right wing were crumpled. Sessions, the force behind the Historic Flight Foundation in Mukilteo, was critically hurt with a severed left foot. As he hopped from the wreckage, one of his passengers was unconscious.
Historic Flight Foundation Chairman John Sessions takes a call in his office with his prosthetic leg in a backpack behind him. He said he was giving his leg a rest after “overdoing the day before.” (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
Sitting directly behind Sessions was Larry Greschuk, then 73. Another man sat to his right, two others behind them.
An aviation enthusiast, Greschuk once owned an ultralight aircraft and was a former regular at the annual Abbotsford Airshow, widely considered among the best in the world. His daughter bought him tickets for 2018.
“My daughter knows me quite well,” said the soft-spoken power company retiree who lives on a farm 95 miles east of Edmonton, Alberta. “She knows that I don’t particularly like planes that were used for fighting and killing people, in other words, warbirds.”
She waited until the end of the show to give him something he’d cherish: a certificate to fly in Sessions’ biplane.
“Finally, I realized I was going to get to ride in this thing,” he said. “I was so impressed with the condition of the airplane. It was impeccable, so beautiful.”
The de Havilland Dragon Rapide had a cramped interior, with room for one pilot and up to eight passengers. The twin-engine biplane helped connect the British Empire in the 1930s. (Dan Catchpole / Herald file)
The Dragon Rapide’s elegant lines evoke the end of one era of air travel, and the beginning of another. Its features, somewhere between sleek and rounded, look modern and stylishly antique at the same time.
The twin-engine aircraft debuted in the final days of planes made from wood and fabric. The British-built plane with room for eight marked the dawn of regularly scheduled commercial flights, though hardly convenient by today’s standards.
“It was used by the Empire to open up the far-flung countries,” Sessions said. It was the first plane to travel a route to Cape Town, South Africa, from London in the ’30s. That journey required 23 stops in 10 days.
The first de Havilland Dragon Rapide flew in 1934. Its creator, Geoffrey de Havilland, was a legendary aircraft designer whose company produced military and civilian aircraft, including the world’s first commercial jet airliner.
The Rapide’s wingspan is just shy of 50 feet. It was powered by four-cylinder engines on each side.
Production lasted a decade, with more than 700 made for civilian and military uses. Sessions bought his in 2017. Built for the Royal Air Force in 1944, that plane later went into civilian service with British European Airways, before seeing duty surveying major public works projects. It got shipped across the Atlantic in 1971 for display in the Experimental Aircraft Association Museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and later wound up in California, as part of the private collection of William “Bud” Field, who died in 2010.
Sessions flew the newly acquired Dragon Rapide up the coast, though engine trouble forced him to leave it in Medford, Oregon, for extended repairs. Restoration finished in 2018, with a new silver and red paint scheme. It was, by Sessions’ estimate, one of only a dozen airworthy examples left in the world.
“I wished I could have spent a long time talking with him,” Greschuk said.
His ears relished the sounds once the old engines started up, rich and backfiring. As they taxied around, he took pictures from his seat on the left side of the aircraft.
A World War II-vintage torpedo bomber lined up before them and took off. They went right after.
When they first dipped to the right, Greschuk said it didn’t bother him much. Sessions corrected quickly. They got higher and the wing dipped to the left.
“I thought, well, something’s not quite right here.”
He looked right as they seemed to stall, an experience he knew all too well from the first time he flew his ultralight in the 1980s.
“When I saw the grass rushing up towards us, I knew we were in for a bit of a bang,” he said. “I heard the bang and I remember thinking, that sounds different … it’s wood breaking.”
“I must have had a bit of a nap because when I came to, the back seat was empty,” he said. “The passengers in the back, the two seats, they were gone.”
The man next to him was knocked out. Greschuk felt something trickling down his face: blood. On impact, his plastic sunglasses had cut a gash into his forehead.
“I thought, I ought to get out of here. This plane is wood. And there’s fuel. The best thing I can do is to get out of here.”
John Sessions and prosthetist/orthotist Ed Strachan look over his leg for signs of healing and irritation of hair follicles at the UW Medicine Prosthetics and Orthotics Clinic in Seattle. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
‘That sounds different … it’s wood breaking.’
During a brief pre-flight chat, Greschuk came away just as impressed with the pilot as with the airplane. He remembered Sessions politely correcting him about a type of vintage aircraft engine they’d heard earlier — what Greschuk took to be a Rolls-Royce Merlin was probably an Allison. The snippet of conversation was vintage Sessions: precise, measured and encyclopedic.
He crawled to the door and clambered down from the plane, with the help of a man on the ground. He saw firefighters walking toward the wreck.
Aside from his forehead and a bruised leg, he emerged in decent shape. At the hospital, they stitched him up, kept him overnight and gave him drugs to prevent a blood clot.
Sessions was in for a more complicated medical adventure.
The pilot stayed awake during the crash. The passenger in back of him, the one next to Greschuk, had been knocked out.
“I was doing what I could for him,” Sessions said. “He was pretty sleepy, pretty unconscious. I looked down and I saw that my foot was in the boot, totally separated from my leg. It had been snapped off. So I reached down and created pressure on the point of separation in my leg … minimizing the loss of blood.”
One of the back-seat passengers walked around to the front to hand Sessions a belt to use as a tourniquet. Emergency personnel started showing up, local crews as well as a flight surgeon for the Blue Angels, the U.S. Navy demonstration squadron, which was performing at the airshow. Sessions said the surgeon replaced the belt with a real tourniquet and tightened it to stop circulation below the knee.
“And so then I broke away what was left of the windscreen and I hopped out, still conscious,” he said. “They put me right on a gurney. I talked to the passengers. I was worried about them.”
During the crash, Sessions’ right arm had made contact with the runway. His right ankle got twisted, but popped back into place without breaking. He suspects his left leg got the worst of it because it was extended, and closer to the front of the airplane.
With the exception of the unconscious man, all of the passengers were up and walking.
“Your training kicks in when these sorts of things happen,” Sessions said. “It was, How are the passengers? Is everybody out? Is there any gas leaking? Is the electrical turned off? Yes, yes, yes, everything’s fine. No gas is leaking … It seems like everybody’s going to survive.”
Then, as the person most severely injured, it was time for him to get medical attention.
An investigation by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada is ongoing. Sessions, without making excuses, believes he simply didn’t have enough power to compensate for the wind conditions.
Few can doubt whether John will be back flying, probably the only reasonable bet is how soon.
Good Luck from all!!!
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