Pilot in Wheeling plane crash remains critical after surgery
The pilot in last month's fatal plane crash in Wheeling remains in critical but stable condition today after extensive surgery this week.
Todd Cole, 36, of Jacksonville, Ill., underwent surgery Monday at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood to repair broken ankles and transplant skin grafts to his face and hands after suffering burns to 30 percent of his body, said his friend and the plane's owner, G. Ronald Kesinger.
Instantly killed in the crash was Cole's passenger, 18-year-old Benjamin VanHyning of Jacksonville. VanHyning, an employee at Jacksonville Municipal Airport, had volunteered to keep Cole company on the flight to transport Kesinger's newly purchased and renovated aircraft from Chicago Executive Airport in Wheeling.
VanHyning was a 2010 graduate of Jacksonville High School who had recently started taking flying lessons.
Kesinger spoke Wednesday about the injuries his friend suffered in the Dec. 22 crash.
"Apparently he was on fire in the cockpit, but was able to get out," Kesinger said.
Cole first tried to get VanHyning out of the cockpit as well, but was unable, Kesinger said. Cole reportedly got himself out on to the wing and jumped into the snow below, rolling in it to put out the flames on his body.
"He was a very brave person," Kesinger said.
Much of the time between the crash and Monday's surgery was spent getting Cole stabilized, Kesinger said. He learned from Cole's new wife and medical staff that he would have been unable to endure surgery any earlier.
Both before and after the surgery, Cole has been kept largely incoherent by the drugs used to help stabilize him, Kesinger said. National Transportation Safety Board investigators have been unable to speak much with him, he added.
Though the investigation continues, the NTSB this week released a preliminary report on the crash.
The report states Cole contacted air traffic control shortly after his 2:45 p.m. takeoff saying he needed to return to Chicago Executive Airport because the single-engine Beechcraft Sierra was vibrating and losing power.
"Witnesses reported that the airplane appeared to be having difficulty gaining altitude after takeoff," the report reads. "They stated that the airplane leveled off at an altitude of 50 to 100 feet above the runway. The airplane remained at that altitude until it entered a left descending turn prior to impact. The witnesses reported they heard the engine running and that it was normal."
The plane crashed in the parking lot of the Acco building near Wolf and Hintz roads, half a mile northwest of the airport.
Kesinger released a written statement the following day detailing the plane's maintenance history.
He said he'd learned from the plane's previous owner that its engine was defective and in need of a major overhaul. This overhaul took place at a repair shop in Michigan before being returned to Wheeling and reinstalled, according to the statement.
The previous owner's pilot, Jim Kwasek, confirmed that he flew the plane after its recertification a few months ago and that it performed "wonderfully" at that time.
Cole, who has worked as a mechanic and pilot for Kesinger's other aircraft over the past five years, agreed to pick up the plane and bring it to Jacksonville, Kesinger said.
Though the plane had been ready for pickup since October, Cole had not had a chance to collect it until Dec. 22 because of his recent wedding and subsequent weather issues.