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Praying as the Plane Goes Down

“When my clothes are burning, my hair. More than anything, that was the moment,” Ken recalled, “when I thought, ‘Now you're gonna die.’”

August 30, 2015, Ken and his wife, Sonia, were preparing to fly from Fort Lauderdale to Washington, D.C. with a quick stop in Lynchburg, VA to see their daughter, Monica. Ken had over 36 years of flying in the Royal Canadian Air Force and later for commercial airlines in Canada and the US. Ken says, “Every flight is gonna have different aspects to it. It's a different mission. But on this particular day, I think we were probably just more excited to be going to see Monica than anything.” Sonia says, “I am not quite as comfortable flying and doing adventuresome things as Ken, so there's always just a few butterflies in my stomach.”

Finally, Ken got clearance to take off. Ken recalls, “We got to about 3800 feet when I was doing my internal scan of the instruments, and I noticed that the oil pressure was significantly lower than it should be.  Oil pressure on the aircraft should be 60 pounds per square inch, and this was actually 9.” At once Ken radioed the tower and turned back toward the airfield. Sonia recalls, “When I heard him say, "864 Kilo Mike declaring emergency," it's like it - a lump just went right here.” Ken says, “We were planning as if the engine would fail and hoping that it was just an indication issue, and that we would be able to land and find that, oh, some probe was not functioning well.” Sonia says, “I never really thought this is how we'd die. I knew I was really, really nervous, but we have to come out of it. We're going to come out of it.”

Then Ken says, “I called air traffic control, and said, ‘We have the airport visual.’  And they said, ‘We confirm you have the airport visual, switch to Fort Lauderdale Executive Tower.’ And I hit the radio button to do that, and the engine stopped. And things got really, really quiet.” Sonia recalls, “And now he declares a ‘Mayday’. That's a new level of… of the anxiety is super intense.” Ken remembers, “My first responsibility is to figure out how to get us on the ground safely. ‘Can I make the runway? No. Can we land in the – in the town?’ Because we're right over Fort Lauderdale. You can, but that's probably not gonna go very well, it's a very, very fast airplane, and when it touches down it's really moving fast. It's doing over a hundred miles per hour.” Ken decided their best option was to try and land on a narrow gravel levee between the edge of town and the Everglades Swamp. Ken recalls, “Ran all the emergency checklists, got everything all ready for the landing. Then we had time to reflect and say, ‘We got a couple minutes here, or seconds, we should pray now.’’ Sonia says, “I knew at the time I didn't need to have an eloquent prayer: ‘Dear Father, I’m in this time of need’. He clearly knew. So, I just said, ‘Oh God.’’

Ken landed on the levee going over 120 miles per hour, trying to keep control of the aircraft. He recalls, “We started bouncing all over the place. We slowed to about 55 or 60 knots, and the nose starts to drift to the left, because as it slows down, I'm starting to lose directional control. We've got this really strong crosswind. And then the left landing gear fell off the top of the levee and it broke off.” Sonia says, “And we spun around really quickly almost to that the wind was knocked out of me.” Ken then says, “When I looked over Sonia's shoulder to see where we were going, all I saw was flames. And we came to a stop, and now the entire airplane's engulfed in flames. I thought, ‘We might not get out of this alive.’”

Sonia says, “I remember being really, really hot – warm - and the screen in front, all red. That's when it went through my head, ‘Oh, this is how it feels to die in an airplane crash.’” Ken says, “I stepped out onto the wing. The wing is on fire. The first thing I felt was pain. And it started with my leg and as I got the rest of my body out, it went to my arm and it went to my head and my chest, and just intense pain, unlike anything I'd ever felt before.” Sonia says, “He reached for my hand to pull me and I'd forgotten my headset on.  And so, it jerked me back.” Ken recalls, “And our hands slipped, and she fell back into the airplane. More than anything, that was the moment when I thought, ‘Now you're gonna die.’ Because I'm not leaving you behind. So, either I'm gonna get you out, or I'm gonna die trying.”

Sonia says, “And then he grabbed my hand and pulled.” Ken recalls, “And up she came out of the seat. Here I am standing on the wing having - burning away, when my clothes are burning, my hair, and when Sonia comes out on the wing, there's a circle around us now of no flames.”  Then, the fire parted, leaving a clear path to the canal. Ken and Sonia jumped into the water and swam away from the burning wreckage. They climbed back onto the levee to wait for help. Sonia recalls, “I've started to feel a little bit elated. I think we're both a little bit elated, like we lived and we're here. So almost an excited feeling.”

Emergency personnel rushed Ken and Sonia to the hospital. Sonia had minor burns to her head while Ken sustained 2nd and 3rd degree burns over 8 percent of his body, which required painful cleaning and multiple surgeries. Three weeks later, he was released to go home. That Thanksgiving, the family met at the crash site to remember and to give thanks to God for saving their lives. Ken recalls, “And all I could feel was a sense of foreboding as to what could have happened, and a sense of true gratefulness and joy.” Sonia says, “We gathered in a circle and prayed and thanked God for keeping us alive. And so, it was kind of almost more celebration being happy we made it.”

The McKenzies still enjoy flying together and often share their faith in a God who still does miracles. Ken says, “Sharing my faith has become a heck of a lot easier.

Fulfill what God's called you to do. And actually, get out there and do it.” Sonia says, “We don't want to forget these experiences or-or take them for granted. We need to share how God has, you know, saved us literally, and how our faith has-has brought us through. And maybe it can help somebody else as well.”

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