Retired teacher survives crash on research trip for next book

Friday, March 13, 2009
A 1954 Super Cub lies crumpled in a field following an accident last week that injured two men. (Photo courtesy Bryan Jones)

The McCook man has a couple of broken ribs and a bruised liver, and he said he seems to discover new bumps and bruises every day.

Bryan Jones says, "I could be hurt three times as bad, and it would still be a miracle that I'm alive."

Jones and his pilot, Jim Van Winkle of rural Wood Lake, are recovering from injuries they sustained Wednesday, March 4, when Van Winkle's 1954 Piper Super Cub single-engine, two-seater airplane crashed shortly after taking off from Van Winkle's grass landing strip a mile northwest of Wood Lake, in the Nebraska Sandhills southeast of Valentine.

Bryan Jones is recovering at home following a plane crash last week in North-central Nebraska. (Connie Jo Discoe/McCook Daily Gazette)

Jones, an author and retired teacher, had hoped to get a feel for some ranches about which he planned to write.

"The engine didn't quit or cough," Bryan remembers. "There was no wind. We lifted off, sat back down and went up again, smooth as butter."

Fifty or 60 feet in the air, just clear of the hangar, Van Winkle was about to bank the plane to the left, when it turned right and went straight down. "Jim said, "I think we're going down," Bryan said. "I thought, 'I'm dead now. There's no way to survive this'."

"I woke up mad ... and hurting," Bryan chuckled. "Jim was saying, 'We've got to get out," and Bryan realized that fuel was running into Jim's seat and that Jim was covered with fuel. Both men were covered with shattered glass.

Bryan said he told himself, "OK, this is going to hurt ... ," but he raised himself up enough to get his seat belt off and then practically fell out the broken door of the crumbled cockpit. "I realized I was trackin' all right," Bryan said, but Jim seemed confused. He wanted his glasses, and then he started this loop of questions: "Where are my glasses? Did you call my wife? Are you hurt? Where? Am I hurt? Did you find my glasses? Did you call my wife? Are you hurt? ..."

Bryan said he helped Jim up, and then he disappeared. Jim reappeared driving his pickup, and stopped close to the mangled plane. "I tried to talk him into letting me drive," Bryan said, but then Jim disappeared again, into his shop. "About 20 minutes later, I found him at a sink, cleaning himself off with a towel," Bryan said. The loop of questions started again: "Did I ask you about my glasses? I can't see without my glasses. Did you call my wife? Are you hurt? Where? ... "

With no cell phone coverage to call anyone for help, it took Bryan another 21⁄2 hours to get Jim next to Bryan's car. "I begged him, I pleaded ... 'We need to get going.' I think it was the begging that finally got him into the car," Bryan said. Jim's loop of questions continued, "Did I ask you about my glasses? Are you hurt? Am I hurt?

"The 'tape' kept running," Bryan said, "all the way into town." Valentine, and a hospital, were 25 miles away.

Bryan said he dropped Jim off at the emergency room door and went to park the car. "I went inside, and the nurses asked if they could help me. I said I was with Jim," and they immediately strapped Bryan to a board, neck brace and all. "It was so uncomfortable on that board," Bryan says, with a grimace. "It had nails in it. I know it did."

Bryan was admitted and diagnosed with a couple broken ribs, a torn muscle on his sternum and a bruised liver.

Bryan chuckled, "I've always thought I'd never need pain pills. 'I'd be tough.' Not any more ... "

Jim's wife, a nurse, was on duty at the hospital when the two men came in for treatment. Jim was flown immediately to Creighton University in Omaha, for treatment of a massive concussion -- the reason for the unending circle of questions -- and for the fuel burns.

Doctors also discovered that Jim had a broken leg and a broken arm.

Jim's wife was dumbfounded, shocked, by the accident, Bryan said. "He's always so careful," she told Bryan. He even gets on the Internet and researches every crash of every Super Cub, Bryan said.

The Super Cub is a favorite of private pilots in the Sandhills, Bryan said. It's very forgiving, and takes off in such short distances. "A Super Cub will take off in a distance the length of this house," Bryan said, motioning from the south end to the north end of his and his wife Kathy's home on Norris Avenue.

Bryan was released from the Valentine hospital just a day after the accident. "They were a great team of doctors and nurses," he said. His ribs are healing at home in McCook, although additional bumps and bruises seem to reveal themselves every day, he said.

Jim's been released, too, from the Omaha hospital, and is recovering back home on the ranch near Wood Lake. Bryan talked to him exactly a week after the crash. "He remembers getting the mail Wednesday morning, and then nothing until Saturday morning in the Omaha hospital," Bryan said.

Bryan was flying with Van Winkle researching his latest book, a study of ranching and ranch families and the McMurtrey Ranch, a legendary 30,000-acre Sandhills ranch that had been owned by the same family for more than 100 years -- before it was sold for $9.6 million to television mogul and buffalo rancher Ted Turner on June 26, 2007.

The McMurtrey ranch was in one big chunk, Bryan said, with the exception of three school land leases. "The McMurtreys were very impressive people," Bryan said. "Alf McMurtrey was born in 1886, and he made most of the land purchases. Hub was born in 1891, and he was the ramrod. Hub managed the ranch and handled all the men. He was a demon worker."

Alf never married and died in 1949, without a will. Hub had to sell chunks of the ranch to pay off the nine surviving brothers and sisters, Bryan said. Hub died in 1979, and his widow rented the ranch to Judge A.W. Moursund, a Texas attorney and banker and financial advisor and lifelong friend of former U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Moursund abused the ranch, Bryan said, overgrazing it and letting the fences fall down around it.

Hub McMurtrey's granddaughters intervened, and with the help of the "Sandhills Task Force," worked to restore the ranch to its natural habitat. The mission of the Sandhills Task Force is to act as a liaison between ranchers and environmentalists, Bryan said. Its focus is on implementing sound environmental and economic practices in the Sandhills of Nebraska by promoting research, education, technical assistance and on-the-ground conservation practices. The STF's project coordinator is rancher and pilot Jim Van Winkle.

Bryan Jones and Jim Van Winkle had planned earlier plane flights over the old McMurtrey Ranch and also over Sandoz ranch land, but those flights had been postponed because Van Winkle is so busy, Bryan said, as a Cherry County commissioner and also with the Sandhills Task Force.

"I wanted to get a true sense of the ranches," Bryan said, and from the air seemed a natural vantage point.

Another "sense" came into play before the March 4 flight, as Bryan said he had a bad premonition about going up. He'd had a close call once before, on another writing trip and in another small plane, when a wind shear tipped the wings of the plane and the pilot righted it just seconds before landing.

Before the March 4 flight, Bryan made sure all his things were in order, and that Kathy knew where everything was. "But if you'd ever have confidence -- we were in a Super Cub, a pilot with a million miles of experience, in his own plane, on his own ranch ... " Bryan said.

Bryan will continue his research, into the McMurtrey ranch, the Sandoz ranch, into the Mormon ranches of the Sandhills. "I've probably got at least one more big swing up there," Bryan said.

Bryan said he wants to formally interview Jim Van Winkle, about his passion for ranching and the Sandhills, about the Sandhills Task Force.

When's Bryan's next flight? "Never," Bryan said. "I hate to be a coward, but ... the ground just came up too fast. It was just too much of a shock ... to auger into the ground like that."

Bryan said that Kathy wasn't totally surprised by the accident. "She probably won't let me go up again," Bryan chuckled.

Bryan L. Jones is a retired reading and spelling teacher at McCook Junior High and is the author of "The Farming Game" and "Mark Twain Made Me Do It and Other Plains Adventures."

His articles have appeared in New Farm, New Land Review and North Dakota Quarterly magazines.

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