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Lucky to Be Alive

by Greg Whipple (MSO, 59) |

On April 13, 1977 twenty miles outside of Laredo, Texas, near the Mexican border, a PA 18 Super Cub belonging to the U.S Border Patrol stalled and spun in from an altitude of about l00 feet. At the controls was Greg Whipple. who had first jumped out out of the Missoula base in 1959.

Greg had been tracking a group of nine aliens. The terrain was flat with heavy mesquite brush. He was cruising close to 50 mph as he continued his tracking mission.

As the plane entered a classic stall-spin configuration, Greg hit the power and pulled the stick across. There was no response. As the ship hit the ground, the wing broke at the roots and the pieces folded back. The engine was pushed back between his legs. The wheels had broken off as the Super Cub bounced fifteen feet to one side and Greg was sitting on the remains of the cockpit with one hand outside holding himself up. Both his legs were broken to such an extent that he could see the soles of his shoes since his feet had been turned upwards. He could smell and feel gasoline from the punctured tank running down his shoulders close to the hot engine.

While tracking aliens, pilots usually flew with a shoulder harness slightly loose in order to see out the open door. Greg's chest was smashed into the instrument panel with such force that impressions from the instruments were stamped on his chest to the point that one could read the settings. He had his helmet on, which probably saved his life. The left side of his body and head took much of the impact.

Men who had been working with him through radio contact on the ground came rushing to the site. They could not get the hot engine off him and Greg had to sit there for about 45 minutes while they got a pry bar from Laredo. Greg was telling them what to do when things started turning a little grey because he was running out of blood.

A Border Patrol officer happened to be in Laredo and heard of the crash over a radio. He immediately commanded an EMP unit and driver to drive to the site which was several yards from the road. All roads leading to Laredo along the route were blocked off as the EMP vehicle hit 100 mph on the way to the hospital.

Greg's left ankle was broken in fifteen places and the right one was broken in four. Both legs were badly broken and he suffered three crushed disks in his back. His face had hundreds of lacerations and as a result of a deep cut on the back of his left upper arm, he almost bled to death. The rescuers did not notice this at first since the foam cushion from the aircraft was absorbing most of the blood.

Part of the aircraft had cut through his left cheek and cut off the left wisdom tooth and one of the molars and broke his jaw. (The doctors had to wait two weeks before wiring his jaw shut.)

Greg suffered other major injuries: a ripped liver, intestines, and stomach. In the hospital he required 8 units of blood which took eight days to administer into his body. His left ankle is now completely fused and is what doctors call "aviator's ankle" because it is a common type of injury to occur in Super Cub crashes resulting from its tubular structured.

The doctors worked on Greg for eight and one-half hours as he remained heavily sedated. He would suddenly sit up and ask, "What in the Hell is going on?" and they would quickly "whack" him with more sedation. A nerve in his face had been severed. He did not have any feeling from the comer of his mouth to the left side of his face.

Because of this, he had to stand in front of a mirror and teach himself to move his mouth in order to talk. The doctors thought they would have to amputate his legs, but when they shot in some dye it showed up in his toes. They realized they could save them. Greg was greatly relieved to wake up one day and see his toes sticking up. But if his legs had been amputated, Greg was ready to use artificial ones.

On the day of the crash, Greg's wife had told him to take some leave time. She had had a dream about a plane crash, but the plane didn't bum. In her dream she had called repeatedly, "No fire, no fire, no fire." . And in her dream she had put the fire out. This year on April 13 at exactly the time of the crash in 1977-9:35 AM.--his wife hit a deer on her way to work. She immediately recalled the hour, minute, and day of Greg's crash as the animal slammed into the right front of the vehicle. (In 1977. she had been waiting at the door of the emergency room when he arrived. He had told her, "I will be OK." She told the doctor she wanted Greg moved to a hospital in San Antonio. Eight days later they were on the way, with the technicians continuing to administer blood as the ambulance moved on. Greg says, "Because of my wife, I pulled through .")

Greg was thirty-seven years old at the time of the crash. His son Morgan was eleven. (He also became a Missoula base jumper, starting in 1989, and today is an officer with the Silver City, NM police department.) Greg and his wife also live in the Silver City area. Greg still flies his M5 Maule. Several months ago he was involved in an aerial search for a missing man, age seventy­ nine. who was located within seven minutes, dead, with a three wheeler on top of him. Greg plans flying into the distant future. He is truly lucky to be alive.