Matt Cole stands next to the runway at Guthrie-Edmond Regional Airport watching a Cessna float toward the pavement. One of his student pilots is completing an aviation tradition — the first solo.
It might be hard to believe Cole, now a flight instructor, is anywhere near an airport. Twelve years ago, flying nearly took his life.
When he strapped himself into a Piper Seneca on March 16, 2001, Cole's career was about to take off. He'd rounded up nearly enough flight hours to start sending his resume to the airlines. In the meantime, he'd take a job as a flight instructor in Palm Coast, Fla.
On this day his future would end up taking a turn that most people could never imagine.
The day's mission was a “standardization flight,” a session for Cole's supervisor to show the new hire how the company wanted him to teach student pilots. Along with a third instructor onboard, the Seneca took off from Daytona Beach International Airport. It would not return.
As Cole set up his approach for the aircraft's final landing, his supervisor cut off the fuel supply to one of the aircraft's two engines. While multi-engine pilots are required to be skilled at landing with only one engine, cutting off the fuel can be a risky decision.
“Once the engine's been turned off, there's no turning it back on. There's no going around for another try,” Cole said.
Cole didn't catch the instructor's move in time. The aircraft was losing airspeed and altitude quickly. Without the power of the second engine, they couldn't climb.
Inside the cockpit, reality was starting to set in.
“At one point I saw a brick wall whiz by the window.” Cole remembers. “That's when I knew we weren't going to make it.”
According to the NTSB's post-accident report, a witness saw the struggling aircraft clip the trees next to a highway and crash into the median. One of the Seneca's fuel tanks had been punctured, and the wreckage became an inferno.
All three men escaped the aircraft, but Cole was engulfed in flames. A passing motorist used his shirt to put out the fire on the pilot.
Two months later, Cole awoke from a medically induced coma to a different reality. He'd suffered third-degree burns to more than half his body. The fire had taken his ears and lips, and his hands had been disfigured.