Plane crash in Chesapeake Bay left mother and son adrift - Mary Lagerquist

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Plane crash in Chesapeake Bay left mother and son adrift

OCT 29, 2011 | 3:51 PM

Lanny Ross struggled to push his 78-year-old mother through the surf toward shore.

On a cool, cloudy October afternoon, his two-seater plane had smacked into the Chesapeake Bay, stranding them both amid five-foot waves.

His mother's right eye was swollen shut, her teeth had pierced her bottom lip, and her nose was broken. Miles from land, the sun was setting and they were shivering, when his mother spoke.

Hold my hand, she told him.

What's wrong? he asked her.

Hold my hand, she said again.

He grabbed her fingers and held them for a moment. Then he went back to pushing her toward land.

Lanson "Lanny" C. Ross III, 48, had lived far from his parents for decades because of his career with the Air Force and the Air Force Reserve. But this autumn, his parents, Mary Lagerquist and Lanson "Lance" C. Ross Jr., had driven across the country from Washington state in a motor home to visit Lanny and his wife at their new home in Fort Washington.

After Maryland, the parents planned to head to Florida to visit Lanny's older brother — wrapping up their long East Coast swing before Lance would pursue treatment for prostate cancer. Though divorced, they liked to travel together.

"One last hurrah," Lanny recalled recently from his home. Six feet tall and solid, he has a shaved head, a wide and toothy mouth. Lanny is talkative, though his emotions are well-protected. His directness comes across as macho, coarse even.

Lanny had never flown with Mary, who, even into her late 70s, was beautiful, adventurous, an accomplished musician. They were close, and tried to speak by phone every day.

At 1 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 2, they took off from Hyde Field airstrip in Clinton, a short drive from Andrews Air Force Base, where Lanny works.

"More than anything else on this trip, she wanted to ride in that little airplane with Lanny," said Lance. "[Mary] was waving at me as they went down the runway, and grinning as big as a [Cheshire] cat."

Conditions were not ideal for the 63-year-old restored Globe Swift. The cloud deck that day was at 2,200 feet, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. That was lower than Lanny would have liked. He's most comfortable if there's at least 3,500 feet of airspace.

Still, the flight to Tangier Island, Va., was short and smooth.

During his six months in Maryland, Tangier Island became Lanny's default place to fly. It's not far — about a 45-minute trip — and the flight path avoids Washington's restricted airspace. It's also home to delicious crab cakes.

Lanny and Mary didn't stay long. They walked through town for less than an hour, appreciating the long-inhabited island's gravestones and reading the names of memorialized vets. And they stopped for lunch, buying a to-go container of cream of crab soup.

Mary thought Tangier was a treasure, Lanny said, and joked that she should move there.

Back at the airstrip, another pilot was getting into a plane and wearing a yellow inflatable life preserver with a light attached to it.

"I thought it looked cute," recalled Lanny, who was flying without life preservers; he did not think the width of the bay demanded it.

At 3:35 p.m., Lanny and Mary took off from Tangier, according to the NTSB.

Within 10 minutes, they had climbed to 2,000 feet and "were just settling in for the return," when the plane's only engine went quiet.

A life in the air

Lanny had bought the antique Swift around the time of his marriage in 2005.

Allison Ross — soft-spoken, tall and blond — is a military nurse and an Airframe and Powerplant mechanic, licensed to repair and overhaul most aircraft components. She helped bring the Swift back to life.

"I'd work all week, and then I'd have a plane to repair," Allison said. "We'd be out there all day working on it. It was like an old car; we refurbished it."

After four years and much expense, the couple had a pristine "bird," as Lanny calls it.

They had the exterior repainted white, with red accents. Photos show a gleaming metallic grille and a propeller with visible wood grain, both unblemished. The cockpit was enclosed with unspoiled glass.

For Lanny, the Swift was a pleasant diversion that allowed him to continue a lifelong dream of flying.

Lanny announced to his parents at age 12 that he wanted to join the Air Force, his father said. And in 1978, at age 15, he and a friend rode their bicycles from Washington state to Washington, D.C., so Lanny could introduce himself to his representatives in Congress and prime them for military academy recommendations. He wanted to prove that he could finish what he'd started.

"Lanny went away a little boy and came back a young man," the father said.

Lanny graduated from the Air Force Academy in the mid-1980s and was on active duty for seven years. He flew during Operation Desert Storm and Operation Just Cause, the invasion of Panama. He's been a full-time reservist since the mid-'90s and works as an Air Reserve technician, planning routes and training crews in case of nuclear attack.

Before the accident, he was scheduled to deploy to Iraq during the last week of October. His unit is supporting the troop withdrawal.

"Lanny, he's through-and-through a pilot," Allison said. "All he wants to do is fly."

Miles from shore

As the Swift's engine stalled, Lanny heated the carburetors first, thinking that they might have iced up. Still no rumble.

He checked the instruments, changed the fuel mixture to rich and activated the fuel boost pump.

Still nothing.

He set the glide speed at 80 mph and called a mayday to Patuxent Approach, the air traffic controller for the area, which is run by the Navy. There was no time to turn back to Tangier, he told the controller. The better option was to get as close as possible to the land off to their right.

Already they were down to an altitude of 1,200 feet when Lanny veered the plane to the right. He hoped the 40 mph tail wind would push them a bit farther toward solid ground.

"I think if I said anything to Mom, it was, 'Mom, we're going to have to ditch this thing.'"

In less than three minutes, they hit the water — three miles from land.

The wind that had pushed them closer to shore also increased the force with which the plane hit the water, and next to him, Mary's face slammed twice into the control panel.

Musical education

Music always had been the focus of Mary's life.

"She wanted a marimba from the time she was a little girl," recalled her sister, Lyla Stoike, who lives in Sequim, Wash. But their parents made her learn the piano first.

"When she was 13, she got a marimba, which is like a giant xylophone," Lanny said. "By the time she was … 16 she was playing with the Kansas City philharmonic orchestra. In her youth, Mary even accompanied Bob Hope and played on "The Ed Sullivan Show."

After graduating from Wheaton College in Illinois, she earned a master's degree from a music conservatory in Chicago.

Into her golden years, she performed — with her childhood marimba teacher — on cruise ships that traveled the globe.

Ultimately, "she played herself deaf, pounding on that thing," Lanny said.

"Mary was a beautiful lady. She was not a great musician," said Lance, who had been her husband of 32 years before their divorce. "She was a performer. She got up in front of a crowd and she lit them up."

After the crash

There was no time to climb out of the Swift before it was under the waves.

Lanny tried to release his mother from her seat, but he couldn't find the belt latch under her bulky sweater. He resurfaced without her.

But right behind him she "bobbed up like a cork."

Lanny saw a seat cushion, a headset pouch and a plastic bag filled with frozen soup floating around them. He grabbed the freezer bag and pulled out the soup, then tried to fill the bag with air, but it wouldn't stay inflated.

His mother seemed dazed, Lanny said, but she was able to float on her back. Lanny was furiously treading water, which hovered around 70 degrees, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

At least 20 minutes passed before Mary asked Lanny if they'd been in a crash.

Soon after the crash, helicopters and small planes appeared in the sky, and Lanny was certain they'd been seen.

The Maryland State Police used two helicopters in the search. The Coast Guard sent out an aircraft and a boat. Maryland Natural Resources Police assisted with two boats.

"We waved and we splashed. We waved and we splashed. We waved and we splashed," Lanny said. "And we get nothing."

They treaded water for an hour before Lanny decided they needed to head to shore, which he could see only from the peaks of the highest waves.

As Mary swam, she continued to veer off course. Lanny, exhausted by righting her path, instructed her to float on her back. He pushed his mother by her legs, as if her head were the bow of a boat, chopping through the waves.

The pushing went on for an hour, as Lanny tried to get them closer to the coast. That's when Mary told him to hold her hand.

He told her he couldn't tread water next to her and still make progress toward shore. But with greater urgency, Mary began pleading with him.

Then he lied — saying that he could see nearby houses, getting bigger by the minute.

His mother kicked her legs, and Lanny took two strokes and went back to push her again. Her legs were limp.

Mary was dead.

Fatigue sets in

Back in Fort Washington, Allison began to wonder why Lanny and Mary had not returned. She knew Lanny did not fly in the dark; the plane had no landing lights. Allison tried to get through to the Federal Aviation Administration.

"The FAA told us to call Lockheed [Martin, which tracks flight plans]. … Lockheed told me at that time that they had lost contact with him and that they'd contacted search-and-rescue. That's when it really hit me," Allison said.

Lanny had left his mother behind, to float away in the wake. He described the decision to leave her battered body as "cold and calculating." But he reasoned that his mother would have wanted Lanny to save himself, not worry about her lifeless body.

As the sun went down, Lanny's back hurt and he was shivering, but he continued to push through the waves. By 6 p.m., he reached a narrow sandbar where he could touch bottom. His spirits lifted and he continued to move toward land.

Lanny was getting close. He could finally see lights on the shore.

But a marsh and a bay, called Shanks Creek, still separated him from the twinkling lights of Smith Island's Rhodes Point.

The hour spent crawling through the bog was the most physically demanding part of the journey, Lanny said, and his body began to falter. Lean and strong, he had been on a fitness kick during the 10 weeks leading up to the crash and thinks it improved his chances of survival.

"I knew I wouldn't drown, but I was in and out and in and out of the water with the wind and the sticky, stinking mud, crawling on my hands and knees, fighting fatigue and hypothermia," he said.

He focused on a bright, yellow glow at one home. He could see lights through a window.

"I guess it was about 8 o'clock, I'm starting to watch a ball game, a football game, and I heard somebody come to my door bang and yell, 'Help me. Help me,'" said William "Max" Cline.

Cline was not entirely surprised to see Lanny, dripping at the door. He'd seen and heard the search helicopters going back and forth all evening.

Lanny told Cline about his mother, how he'd tried to push her to shore until he realized that she was lifeless.

"He wasn't upset. I think he was just in shock," Cline said. "He never really cried or nothing."

He put Lanny in the shower to warm up.

"He couldn't hardly talk, he was so cold," Cline said. "I turned the water on him, then I come out and called 911 and got all of the EMTs and everything over here to come get him."

Soon the rescue teams took over. Cline hadn't even learned Lanny's name before he was flown, by helicopter, to Peninsula Regional Medical Center in Salisbury.

Leslie Marsh, Cline's daughter-in-law, called Allison. Within 10 seconds, Marsh said, Allison asked about Lanny's mother.

"She was kind of hysterical some," said Marsh, who lives next door to Cline. "I had to repeat things to her. I think the only thing she really understood was that he was alive."

After midnight, Lance and Allison arrived at the hospital.

Lance recalls: "When I walked in, he just burst into tears. 'Dad, I killed my mother.'"

'We will get better'

Mary's body was found the next morning, floating in weedy, shallow waters off the southern tip of Smith Island, in Virginia. Lanny, who received a verbal report on the autopsy, said it showed that she had three fractured ribs, a broken jaw, a shattered cheekbone and a major wound on her right shin.

Officials at the Maryland State Police, the agency responsible for investigating Mary's death, concluded that the death resulted from the accident. The Virginia office of the chief medical examiner, meanwhile, is waiting for the results of routine toxicology reports before ruling on a cause of death.

Maryland Natural Resources Police searched for the plane for two days, and found it in about 25 feet of water, almost exactly three miles from Cline's home on Rhodes Point. It is waiting to be recovered, once Lanny's insurer approves the expense.

The NTSB, responsible for determining the cause of the crash, cannot move forward until the plane is pulled up from the bay.

"Water recoveries are a tricky thing," said Robert Gretz, the NTSB investigator handling the case. "Sometimes it's up in a couple days; sometimes it takes months."

Once recovered, the Swift's airframe, engine and fuel system will be scrutinized, Gretz said. Continental Motors Inc., which made the engine, has agreed to provide a technician to examine the powerplant.

Mary was cremated and buried in a family plot in Minnesota. Injuries prevented Lanny from attending his mother's burial, but his father and one of her closest friends were present.

Lanny, with one broken vertebra, will be in a back brace for at least three months. He plans to fly again once he has healed.

Within two weeks of the accident, he poured a detailed account of the day into a letter he shared with a few people. He says he didn't want to have to repeat the tale over and over.

"We will get better. We will get through this," Allison said, Lanny nodding by her side, less than three weeks after the crash. "It's just going to take some time. It's still very raw."