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.
Over the next 10 years, Cole would endure surgery after surgery to salvage his body, including the amputation of an arm.
“I couldn't do anything,” Cole said. “For years I couldn't even take a shower by myself.”
Cole returned to his parents' Los Angeles home while he learned how to live again.
In 2003, Cole's dad decided the family needed a change of pace, and they moved to Edmond.
By 2009, Matt Cole had begun toying with the idea of getting back in a plane.
“I wanted to fly again,” he said. “After the accident, every doctor I talked to told me about something else I would never be able to do again. But I wanted to fly. I missed it.”
After hearing about Cole's yearning to get back in the sky, a friend offered to give him the chance.
Only eight years after he'd nearly died in a fiery plane crash, Cole was in the air again. His first flight was in an aircraft type that he knew well — the Piper Seneca.
Soon, Cole became determined to earn back his licenses and ratings.
“Of course I was scared at first,” Cole said, “but the more I flew, the better I got at it. I started to realize that I could do this.”
With the help of the FAA, Cole earned all of the ratings that he had previously held. In 2012, Cole was hired as a flight instructor by Crabtree Aircraft Co. in Guthrie.
Today he introduces people to the exciting world of aviation, giving them guidance on the importance of flying safely.
“It sounds crazy, but I think that the accident has made me a better pilot and a better instructor.” he says. “I teach my students to expect the unexpected, and to always be calm and ready if there's an emergency.”
Back in Guthrie, as the Cessna's tires squeak onto the runway, Cole cracks a smile. He's ready for a time-honored instructor's tradition — cutting the shirttail off his newly soloed students.
Will Eifert is conversion and reporting analytics specialist for OPUBCO.