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MONROE — Ian Zawacki captured the sunset over the farmland outside Monroe, then turned his phone’s camera toward the rapidly approaching airstrip cut into the corn.
He’d been up with his grandfather, Wilbert Matthes, many times before, just never in Mr. Matthes’ new Kitfox plane. Just hours before, they’d met for Mr. Zawacki’s sister’s birthday, and made a pact to fly on Sunday. The day was calm. They took off from a friend’s grass strip on Saum Road in Raisinville Township. The pair flew with no destination, just a round-trip to see the sights, before heading back to the strip.
And then the calm broke.
Mr. Matthes, 84, an experienced pilot, descended too far too fast, his plane maybe 5 or 10 feet lower than he had planned. The plane’s wheels clipped a power line, and the plane curved to the right. The left wing dipped.
“It was nerve-wracking. I thought I was going to die as soon as I saw we were going down,” Mr. Zawacki said on Monday. “I was just in panic mode.”
The wing’s dip may have saved the men’s life, as it crashed first into the ground, saving them a straight nosedive. As the plane dug into the cornfield, the front wheels snapped off. Jolted, his phone thrown from his hand — still recording through the crash — Mr. Zawacki made sure his legs remained attached, launched a stream of profanities suited for the moment, then rushed out of the plane toward his grandfather’s side.
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They both asked if the other was OK. Mr. Zawacki, 20, was, save for some cuts on his legs and some whiplash. Mr. Matthes was in rougher shape with a fractured sternum. Mr. Zawacki saw blood on his grandfather’s pants and that his hearing aides had fallen out. The young man pulled his grandfather from the wreckage, and yelled for help.
The airstrip’s owner saw the crash and dialed 911. Rescuers arrived in minutes and found them just outside the plane. Mr. Zawacki recounted the crash from Mercy Memorial Hospital in Monroe, where both had been taken. Mr. Zawacki was released shortly afterward but Mr. Matthes remained there on Monday.
He should recover, though he was too loopy from medications to give a proper interview, his wife of 62 years, Peg Matthes, said.
The crash was her husband’s first mishap in the more than six decades he’s flown, she said. He had half-ownership of a plane when they were young, and used to land it in her father’s cow pasture on visits before they married. He sold the half when they were married.
For decades, while he ran Matthes Evergreen Farm outside Ida, Mich., and a cabinet business, he rented planes. He retired from the cabinet business in 1990, but he and his wife still run the farm, which annually sells Christmas trees. All the while, he pined for his own plane.
“It was a real dream of his to have one of his own,” Ms. Matthes said.
A little than a year ago, he bought an already-assembled Kitfox, a small kit aircraft. Mr. Matthes flies twice, maybe three times a week, until now without incident — flights over fairs, trips to see friends, or just an evening with the family.
They were lucky this time. It wasn’t just the crash that could have killed them.
The initial collision knocked the power line over. The live wires fell just feet from the plane. A different path run toward his grandfather may have ended in electric shock for Mr. Zawacki. But despite the close call, he’s not scared of flying. He still plans to get his pilot’s license.
“It won’t stop me from flying,” he said of the crash.
Mr. Matthes, too, will head up in the air when he’s healthy, and once the plane is fixed, relatives said.
Contact Nolan Rosenkrans at: email@example.com or 419-724-6086.