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The Flight Home
Thousands of private planes fill the region’s skies. This one carried two Virginia college kids and a loving dad. By Drew Bratcher
Comments () | Published October 1, 2008

In the locker room after the game, Sean Sutherland showered and packed up his sweat-drenched basketball uniform, high-tops, and headphones. Dressed in his wrinkled game-day khakis and dress shirt, the Lynchburg College junior headed for the gym lobby where family and friends waited to console the players after a tough four-point loss to Methodist University and spirit them away for Thanksgiving break.

It had been a frustrating 40 minutes for Sean, but his struggles hadn’t been without highlight. In one play, Jason Early, a senior point guard from Philadelphia and Sean’s housemate, drove the lane and hit the big man with a behind-the-back pass for a layin. It was what Jason loved about Sean—he had great hands for a 230-pound center.

The two were an unlikely duo. Sean was a quiet, strait-laced workhorse. In high school, plagued by learning disabilities, he’d transferred from Bishop Ireton in Alexandria to nearby Commonwealth Academy. Smaller class sizes and specialized instruction boosted Sean’s grades and his confidence. Since arriving at Lynchburg, in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, he’d worked closely with tutors to keep on top of his studies.

School came easier for Jason. A communications major, he was often the center of attention and had a wide circle of friends. He’d reached out to Sean his freshman year, and when a spot opened up in the house he shared with other Lynchburg players, he asked Sean to move in.

After the Methodist game, Sean was hitching a ride with Jason and his father, Brian, to see his father and stepmother, who was stationed at West Point. Brian Early, who regularly flew his small plane to Lynchburg, was happy to make the detour.

Sean was uneasy about the trip. He wasn’t a big fan of flying; his mother, Joy Sutherland, was surprised he would even step into the plane. A few days earlier, he’d asked her if she would drive him back to school if the flight to New York was rough.

“Of course,” she said.

In the lobby, Sean kissed his girlfriend, Mallory, a cheerleader for the Lynchburg Hornets. He wished her a happy Thanksgiving, then walked outside with the Earlys. On impulse, he ducked back into the school to hug Mallory one more time.

“Be careful,” she said jokingly as Sean waved goodbye. “Don’t forget to wear your seat belt.”

Brian Early, Jason’s dad, was the Hornets’ number-one fan and knew every player by name. During games, there was no mistaking his booming voice. Afterward, he greeted the players with hugs and high-fives.

As a young man, Early had struggled with addiction to drugs and alcohol, but faced at 23 with the prospect of losing his wife, he’d gone into rehab. In an article about him in the Philadelphia Inquirer, he called that decision the beginning of his life. He had been clean ever since.

He had two children—Jason and Molly, a high-school senior. The kids, his job as a financial adviser for Northwestern Mutual, his Irish Catholic heritage (evidenced by the shamrock tattoo on his right arm), the Green Bay Packers, golf—these were his addictions now.

Early had added flying to his list of passions in 2003. He had grown tired of driving from Philly to Lynchburg, and missing his son’s games wasn’t an option. His own father had flown a small plane, and since getting his pilot’s license, Early had racked up more than 400 hours in the air.

There are around 180,000 small airplanes in America. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, about 7,200 are stowed in DC, Maryland, and Virginia. That amounts to nearly a third of the general-aviation aircraft in the Mid-Atlantic region.

Private planes are largely concentrated around metropolitan areas such as Washington, where there’s wealth, a desire to escape the city on weekends, and lots of airports. Small airfields in the area include Montgomery County Airpark near Gaithersburg, Potomac Airfield in Fort Washington in Prince George’s County, and Manassas Regional. Popular flight plans include trips to Ocean City or the Shenandoah Mountains.

It’s more common to rent a plane than to own one. Renting a single-engine plane costs $100 to $200 an hour while the engine is running. Purchased new, an average small aircraft such as a Cessna Skyhawk runs about $240,000. An older model that needs refurbishing can be had for about $100,000. Fixed costs—including maintenance and insurance—total about $7,000 a year before the first gallon of gas.

Early’s plane, a top-of-the-line single-engine Cirrus SR-20, was equipped with a GPS system, weather-tracking and thunderstorm-detection systems, autopilot technology, and a parachute in the rear to minimize the impact of a crash landing. Thanks in part to such features, the number of small-plane accidents has decreased by nearly a third in the past two decades. The number of fatalities is down by almost 40 percent.

The plane brought a sense of adventure to the Early family. On weekends, they would zip off on golfing excursions—to Winged Foot in New York or Firestone in Ohio—returning in time for dinner. At the family’s lake house in Wisconsin, Early would sneak away while the kids played near the dock and fly over low enough to buzz the water, just as his father had done when he was growing up.

After a stop at McDonald’s for coffee, Early drove through the gates at Lynchburg Regional Airport and onto the runway. He climbed into the pilot’s seat. Jason rode shotgun, and Sean sat in the back. At 10:50 pm, the Cirrus cruised down the runway and rose smoothly into the cold, clear November night.

In the air, the three dissected the Methodist game. The narrow defeat was somewhat of a moral victory as it followed a 35-point loss to Southern Virginia. When the conversation thinned, Early tuned the radio, audible through their headsets, to the Gipsy Kings, a French quasi-flamenco group he loved all the more for the way the music irritated Jason.

“Not this s--- again,” Jason said.

In the back, Sean sat quietly, grinning at the back-and-forth and dozing. “Sean, you’re being so loud back there,” Early joked. “I sure wish you’d shut the f--- up.”

As they soared from rural Virginia up the East Coast, orange city lights pulsed below like campfire embers, then faded to sporadic sparks as the plane approached Stewart International Airport, 60 miles north of Manhattan and about half an hour’s drive from West Point. It was well past midnight on November 21, 2007. They had been in the air close to three hours.

Early radioed the tower as he prepared to land. The tower radioed back: “108-Golf Delta, you’re a little off. I’ll let you try it again.”

Early steered the plane in a wide circle over Stewart State Forest. When they were about nine miles from the airport on the return loop, the tower cleared the plane for a second landing attempt.

A minute later, at 1:45 am, the plane struck the top of a tree. Sean jolted awake, breathless. It felt as though they’d reached the apex of a roller coaster and now were plummeting straight down. Moments later, the plane slammed into the ground, skidding 65 feet before screeching to a smoking halt.

In the chaos of the wrecked plane, Jason screamed for his father. He reached across the console and shook him but got no response. His father didn’t move and made no sound.

The plane was tipped on its side, its cabin ripped open. When Jason unfastened his seat belt, he tumbled out and landed in a heap on the forest floor.

The crash knocked Sean unconscious. He later recalled the flash of panic after they struck the tree and the hollow feeling in his stomach—then everything went black. He woke to the smell of gasoline. Reorienting himself, he unfastened his seat belt, balanced himself inside the tilted cabin, and climbed out. Jason was lying in the brush, screaming: “Sean, where’s my dad? Where’s my dad?” Both of Jason’s legs were broken, and his left hand was gashed to the bone.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 10/01/2008 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles