The Air National Guard Shows Journalist Ward Bushee the Wrong Stuff: a Plane Crash

updated 06/18/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/18/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Ward Bushee was always a little afraid of flying. He would take a commercial flight when he had to, but it wasn't his idea of a good time. Too high.

Perhaps it was Bushee's distaste for airplanes that led the Sioux Falls (S. Dak.) Argus Leader, of which he is executive editor, to criticize Air National Guard flyovers last August. "Flyovers can be just plain noisy," an editorial complained after four fighter jets roared over the city one morning in a ceremonial greeting to an Air Guard softball tournament. "Worse... what if a jet crashed?"

It was precisely to address such Nervous Nellieness that Bushee's good friend, South Dakota Air National Guard Maj. Duncan Keirnes, offered to take him up on a training flight. Keirnes, 39, a Northwest Airlines captain, thought that if he could teach Bushee how a plane is flown, his fears would be allayed. It turned out to be one lesson Bushee will never forget.

Bushee, 41, signed on for the "civic leader orientation flight" because it might make a good story. Anyway, he figured, "with a civilian going up, it would be very safe. They wouldn't try anything that would jeopardize your life."

Thus, three weeks ago, Bushee zipped himself into a fire-retardant green jumpsuit and—with a Right Stuff wave to his wife, Claudia, 35, son Ward Gardiner, 5, and daughter Mary, 19 months—climbed into the rear seat of Keirnes's A-7K fighter. As the jet soared into the sky above Sioux Falls, in close formation with three others, Bushee was struck by how pretty everything looked—"just like in the movies." Even as Keirnes completed a delicate mock refueling exercise with a flying tanker, Bushee was only slightly uneasy.

Then came the dogfights, as the pilots tried to maneuver one another into their gunsights. "All of a sudden we're really rolling," says Bushee. "It was just a wild, wild ride. We're going up, down, upside down. And I'm going, 'Whoa, I'm not sure I like this.' "

As Keirnes leveled off after a couple of loops, Bushee noticed a fighter overtaking them from below. "He was coming in this arc and starting to converge with us," Bushee recalls. At that point the jittery journalist tried a little self-reassurance. "Duncan is a very good pilot, and this other guy is a very good pilot, so there's no danger here," he told himself. So much for journalistic analysis; the other jet just kept on coming. "I could see the head in the cockpit," says Bushee. "That jet—it looked like a trout going after bait. It was coming and coming and coming. I could see the whiles of the pilot's eyes. Then there was this incredible thud. Everything was in a fireball. Then there was this charge, like a stick of dynamite under you."

As Bushee reconstructed it later, his jet had been struck in the rear fuselage, and Duncan had immediately hit the eject button, blasting him and his passenger out into space. "All of a sudden," says Bushee, "I'm looking down and I'm on fire, covered with flame, and I'm thinking, 'My God, I'm going to burn to death.' And I thought, 'I'll never see my kids or wife again.' " Fortunately his family had gone home and didn't witness the collision.

Bushee was about 20,000 feet above the farmland near Spencer, Iowa, when his parachute automatically jerked open. The flames on his body went out, and he realized he was alive. "You're suspended there," he says, "and it's just like, 'Wow!' You can't believe what you're seeing. All of this stuff is just circling down toward the earth, two fuselages and wreckage that looked like pieces of paper, just a mass of stuff going down."

Bushee noticed the parachutes of the two pilots; then he looked down at his work boots. "They were roasted; the laces were melted," he says. He checked his fingers and felt for his head and realized that all of him was still there. "It was very, very quiet. And even peaceful. A sort of remarkable thing had happened, and all of the danger was just sort of floating down to the ground below me."

After landing in a cornfield, Bushee was rushed to a nearby hospital and treated for burns, facial cuts and a fractured neck vertebra. (Keirnes and the other jet jockey, Maj. Gregory Gore, 36, virtually unhurt, were back at their jobs piloting commercial jets last week.) The Air National Guard has suspended civilian observer flights, at least until the cause of the collision is determined, which is fine with Bushee. "I will get on commercial airliners again," he admits grudgingly. "But I'm sure I'll always have this fear of flying."

—James S. Kunen, Beth Austin in Sioux Falls

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