The day after Christmas 1986, Marine Corps pilot Dale Puhle walked for the last time. Decked out in his Marine Corps dress blues, he strolled over to a waiting military vehicle and climbed in. It was the last time he walked, and the last time he piloted an aircraft until Feb of 2011.
Dale had just finished his initial flight training along with his basic officer training. He was two weeks from being a commissioned officer and moving on to advanced flight training. A driver on drugs and a bus had other plans.
His impaired military driver sped through an intersection in Oceanside, California, and collided with a bus. No one was seriously hurt, except Dale. A police car, not far behind the speeding vehicle, was on the scene immediately. The officer pulled Dale from the wreckage and finding no pulse, resuscitated him. He died again in transport, and again at the hospital. Each time he returned to the land of the living.
Dale spent seven months in a coma. They operated on him multiple times. When he woke up, he was in a military hospital in Minnesota. He couldn’t walk, talk, or handle even the basic daily functions, but he was still alive. After more surgery, and four years of rehab, he was medically retired from the Marine Corps.
The sky was a crisp blue as we drove to Falcon Field in Mesa, AZ, so blue that it hurt to stare at it. The winds were light out of the southeast, and the nearest cloud was hundreds of miles away. At seventy-five degrees, the weather was perfect for taking a hop around the valley of the sun.
My friend Derek Miller met us at the gate and escorted us to the awaiting Cirrus SR-20 aircraft. I parked just off the tarmac, and Linda, Dale’s saint of a wife, pulled the van close to airplane. Linda helped him into his motorized wheelchair as Derek began the preflight. As soon as he got into his chair, Dale scooted over to the bird and started helping with preflight. He inspected the tail, the ailerons, and the prop as I helped remove the tie downs. He was anxious to get airborne.
“I want Starbucks on this flight,” said Dale in his unique manner of speaking. He relearned to speak, but he has to exhale the words from his mouth with force. We laughed and asked if he knew of a fly-thru Starbucks. He looked at me, the airline pilot, pointed his finger and demanded with a grin, “I want peanuts too.”
With the preflight finished, we took a few pictures and prepared to climb in and slip the surly bonds. We lifted him onto the wing, slid him over to the door, and then hoisted him into the seat. The excitement on his face was visible, and he gave me the universal aviator’s thumbs-up sign.
I strapped him in, got his headset situated, and climbed into the back. Derek settled in and began the preflight checklists as Dale watched and cajoled us even more about the Starbucks and peanuts. When Derek checked the CPAS (Cirrus Airframe Parachute System), an onboard parachute to be used in emergencies, Dale asked, “Where’s the ejection button?” He turned and looked at me, “For you!”
When the motor sprang to life and the prop began to turn we all felt that moment of reverence and revelry that all aviators feel at the sound of a healthy engine. We finished our checklist, called for taxi, and added power. It was my first time in a Cirrus aircraft. The visibility was impressive, and the flat panel displays with electronic checklists made me jealous. (I still fly 737 300/500’s with round dials.) Dale must have also been impressed because he stopped busting my chops and gave his full attention to the operation of the aircraft.
After our run-up, we were cleared for takeoff from 4R. We taxied onto the active runway, pushed up the throttle, and accelerated down the runway. We were airborne at 75 knots, and lifted nimbly away from mother earth. I looked at Dale and could see that he was engrossed with the sensation of being airborne, at the controls of an aircraft, for the first time in over twenty-four years.
You don’t understand the concept of freedom unless you have flown. Taking your craft into the blue and feeling the three-dimensional ability to move is an exhilaration that you never grow tired of. The elevated perspective breathes life into a tired soul, and you feel more godlike as the horizon expands in front of you. I imagine that after twenty plus years bound to a wheelchair, the feeling for Dale must have been euphoric.
His silence ended after we leveled off. He showed us that he still remembered his flying training when he asked about our groundspeed and the winds. His left hand doesn’t always work the way he would like it to, but in the right seat of the Cirrus, he could put his rind hand on the control stick. He placed his hand on the controls and forced out the words, “I want to fly.”
Derek and I had discussed safety precautions specific to Dale’s condition. He didn’t have complete control of his legs, so we made sure that his feet stayed clear from the rudder pedals. I sat behind Dale, prepared to restrain him from interfering with the controls if necessary. I hesitated when he asked. Derek glanced over his shoulder. We didn’t want Dale’s first flight in twenty-four years ending in tragedy because we failed to take important precautions. Finally, I responded, “Why don’t you put your hand on the controls and follow along?” Derek nodded in agreement. Dale stretched out his right hand and grabbed the control stick.
The unique bluffs of the Superstition Mountains lay just ahead of us with Four Peaks looming in the background. We steered out over the Salt River lake system and got a good look at Canyon and Saguaro Lakes. Weaver’s Needle jutted out from the rugged backside of the Superstitions rising sharply upward against the rough terrain. It was a gorgeous day to fly.
Derek relaxed a bit more and let Dale take control. The tactical military pilot in him was still alive and well. He wanted to yank and bank the tiny craft, but when he was too abrupt, I cautioned, “Easy big fella! I have a wife and kids.” He looked over his shoulder, pushed an imaginary button, and said, “Eject! Eject!”
We headed southeast over the valley floor making lazy turns and watching for traffic. Our chatter subsided and we enjoyed the blue sky, light winds, and watchful sun with the healthy drone of the engine lulling us into a calm bliss.
As we turned back towards Falcon Field and prepared for landing, Dale spoke up. “I want to land,” he insisted. I patted him on the shoulder and replied, “I promised Linda I would bring you home in one piece. Leave the landing to Derek.” He removed his hand from the controls, but then he pushed that imaginary button again. “Eject! Eject!”
Almost as if a tribute to Dale’s return to the air, we saw a formation of two Blackhawk helicopters pass by. I thought of the career he could have had, the time he could have logged unencumbered by the earth, the hours of sheer boredom punctuated by sheer terror that he had missed.
Dale sat with his hands in his lap as Derek made a flawless approach and landing to runway 4R. We decelerated smoothly and taxied back to the ramp. Dale thanked us over and over again.
As we turned down our taxiway, I could see Dale’s black wheelchair sitting empty on the edge of the tarmac. It sat like a good soldier waiting for orders, but it also reminded me of the physical limits the accident had imposed on a young Marine pilot. He would slide into the chair and go back to trudging around in motorized movement. He would continue to deal with his day-to-day limitations with the heroic courage of a good soldier. I was glad that for a short time this broken aviator had escaped his earthly physical limitations and enjoyed the freedom of flight once again.
God speed Dale, and good flying.