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Putting their lives on the line

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He was driving home from work when he saw an airplane coming down toward him.

Stan Breeden’s first thought was that the plane was going to collide with his car on Main Street. Then he saw the aircraft dip straight into a neighborhood, its tail flipping up in the air and then dropping out of view.

Then he saw a ball of fire and smoke.

Bobby Forsyth, who lives in the Lakeview neighborhood where the plane crashed, didn’t see the fireball — he thought he saw an orange plane doing a cartwheel as it went down behind a nearby house.

The plane the men saw belonged to Bill Gilliland of Greenwood, who had just taken off from the Greenwood Municipal Airport about 2:15 p.m. Friday. The 1991 single-engine Mooney aircraft crashed less than a quarter-mile from the airport.

Gilliland was killed, and his co-pilot, Michael Elliott of Florida, was taken to Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital in critical condition. Gilliland had 14 years of experience as a pilot, and Elliott was a flight instructor.

Airport employee Alan Gluff said he saw blue smoke coming from Gilliland’s plane at takeoff and heard the engine making a popping noise that wasn’t right.

He was standing at the flagpole outside the airport offices, lowering the flag and watching the aircraft. Gilliland’s plane didn’t get higher than maybe 100 feet in the air then began descending toward the neighborhood where it crashed, he said.

Gluff ran to get someone to call 911; and when he went back outdoors, he could see a pillar of black smoke above the treeline.

Running toward the danger

Breeden left his car on Main Street and ran toward the smoke. He ran along a fence row between the Lakeview neighborhood and a shopping center.

He could see the mangled plane in a Patterson Street home’s backyard, one wing detached and engulfed in flames on the ground. He climbed over part of a fence that the plane had smashed on its way down.

Forsyth ran barefoot from his mother’s house across the street to the crash, reaching the downed aircraft first. He could see two men inside, slumped over and unconscious.

Breeden saw Forsyth going to the cockpit, so he grabbed a nearby garden hose to spray the plane’s burning wing, which was dripping with fuel. Breeden also saw flames coming from the engine compartment.

Forsyth yelled that he was feeling an electric shock, and Breeden ran to him. Together they pulled the co-pilot onto the ground.

‘I need help! I need help!’

Afraid the plane would explode, Breeden dragged the unconscious co-pilot across the ground, brushing broken glass out of the way as he went.

“My knee was giving out, and I was yelling, ‘I need help! I need help!’” Breeden said.

Then a woman grabbed Elliott’s belt with one hand and the collar of his shirt with the other. Breeden and she together pulled the man behind a shed and away from the fire.

When Breeden ran back to the plane, Forsyth came out of the cockpit and yelled that there wasn’t anything they could do for the pilot.

“He’s gone,” Forsyth said.

Then Forsyth sprayed the plane and pilot with the garden hose. He hadn’t been able to feel Gilliland’s pulse, he said. And he didn’t think they would be able to get the man out from under the yoke, which is the device used to control the aircraft.

Public servants arrive

Police officers and firefighters swarmed the scene, and officers insisted that the men leave the plane and pilot behind as flames burst out in the cockpit. An officer grabbed Breeden’s arm and pulled him toward the home’s front yard.

Emergency workers took over, spraying the plane with water and foam.

The blaze sounded like the plane was going to explode, yet it didn’t, Breeden said.

“It was a hard, hard fire, and it was making some popping sounds,” he said.

The next thing he knew, he and Forsyth were together in the front yard and were told they needed medical treatment. Forsyth had felt like he was being electrocuted and had irritated his already dislocated shoulder. Breeden had twisted his knee, which was still healing from meniscus surgery.

Neither needed to stay in a hospital.

When Breeden returned to the crash site Saturday, a National Transportation Safety Board investigator let him look inside the aircraft. He saw that much of the cockpit had burned away. The investigator told him he was lucky to be alive.

“He said, ‘You were about to be a problem, not a problem solver,’” Breeden said. “I never, ever thought we were in danger.”

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