On the 9th January 2013, I departed Jandakot Airport in a friend’s light aircraft for a local joy flight. Shortly after take-off, when about 2 km from the airport, the aircraft's engine suddenly stopped without warning. During the ensuing forced landing onto the South Lakes Recreational Reserve, the aircraft's left wing struck one of the metal goal posts. The impact tore the entire wing from the aircraft. Fuel from the ruptured fuel tank in the wing ignited as the aircraft tumbled and broke up in a huge fireball across the oval.
Despite the severity and the violent nature of the accident, we both managed to crawl from the wreckage without breaking or fracturing a single bone. A former emergency department nurse, John De-Laney, who lives 200 meters from the oval and a former volunteer firefighter, Nigel Lifford, who was driving past at the time came to our aid. They both went into immediate action, dressing our wounds and trying to stabilise us until the paramedics arrived and we could be transported to hospital. There is no doubt, that their actions on the day were instrumental in saving both our lives. John and Nigel, subsequently received a St John Ambulance Community Hero Award. I was very proud to be able to attend the ceremony and see them receive their award.
From the oval, I was transported to Royal Perth Hospital by ambulance. I had a bad concussion and full thickness burns to 80 percent of my body. I spent the next 63 days in the Intensive Care Unit, fighting for my life. Somewhere around the middle of February 2014, I woke up in my room on the burns ward. I was virtually paralysed. I could not walk, bend my joints or lift my limbs. I could not even sit up in bed and press the buttons on the call bell or TV remote. The basic tasks of life were now impossible.
While in ICU, Professors Fiona Wood and Suzanne Rea, Dr Alexandra Murray and an incredible team of doctors and nurses had systematically repaired my damaged body and kept me alive. Now on the ward, Dr Dale Edgar and the wonderful team of Physiotherapists and Occupational Therapists were put in charge to get me moving again. The early days on the ward were dark, bleak and full of pain and despair. Progress was slow and frustrating. Eventually I learnt how to walk again and accomplish the basic functions of living. On the 30th April 2014, I was eventually allowed to go home. I had been in hospital for almost 5 months.
Once home, my daily dressings and hygiene were assisted by home nurses. My friends in the flying club organised a roster, to drive me to and from the hospital each day for Physio and OT.
In time, my body began to heal and my strength, mobility and fitness improved. In July 2014, I passed my driving assessment/test. I had my licence back. It was a great feeling to be independent again and not have to rely on family and friends to drive me around. Living only 7 km from the hospital, around mid-August, I bought a new bike and decided that I would cycle to and from the hospital for my daily sessions (weather permitting).
Despite the accident, I still had strong feelings about wanting to fly again. In late August 2014, I decided to sit my aviation medical examination, which I passed. Unfortunately, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority had other ideas. It took a further nine months before I was eventually issued with my aviation medical and pilots licence. I had done it! I was back in the sky.
19 months have now passed since the accident. I have returned to part time work. Despite some minor issues, I continue to slowly improve. It is fair to say that life is not quite the same as it was. I decided, it is what it is and I needed to take my life back by working toward doing the things I enjoy and used to do before the accident.
Few words can express the gratitude I feel towards everyone in the Burns Unit. They are truly dedicated, compassionate people, who used their incredible skills to enable me to continue with my life. A special thanks to my amazing wife, Rose, my son, mother, family and friends for your love, support, patience and tolerance during this incredible journey.
Below: Ralph getting back his wings!