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

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.

Gasoline seeped from the right wing. Worried that a spark might touch off an explosion or fire, Sean hurried to Jason. But when he bent to lift him, Sean’s back felt as though it had crumbled. Adrenaline had masked the pain until now, but his back was broken in several places.

He pointed to a fallen tree 15 feet away, then crept alongside Jason as his friend crawled on one arm to the trunk and curled up behind it for protection.

Returning to the plane, Sean climbed in, afraid of what he might find. The cabin was completely dark, and he couldn’t reach the pilot’s seat. His calls for Brian Early were met with silence.

Outside, Jason was shouting. Sean feared that his friend was going into shock, so he returned to the tree. “Calm down, calm down,” he said to Jason.

“We’ve got to call 911,” Jason said. He dialed the number with his good hand and gave the phone to Sean. The reception was poor, but Sean managed to hear the operator ask where they’d gone down. Jason had glimpsed their coordinates moments before the crash, and Sean relayed them to the operator. Then the phone cut off.

The plane had come to rest in a wooded valley about two miles from the airport. The ground was still damp from a week of cold rain. As Sean walked to search for better reception, he felt as though his back were snapping. The pain was excruciating when he bent over, and it relented only when he stood as erect as he could.

At the top of a hill, he got service and called 911 again. He told the operator about Jason’s injuries, but the phone’s battery started to die. In the distance, he could hear Jason screaming, “Don’t leave me!”

Jason was in bad shape. His hand was bleeding profusely. Sean lay down next to him behind the tree, his back throbbing. The two shivered uncontrollably. Sean got Jason’s bag of dirty laundry from the plane, ripped it open, and piled clothes on top of his friend. He wrapped a T-shirt around Jason’s wounded hand, then called 911 again. But the phone died.

In the dark stillness, Jason told Sean he was sure his father was dead. They talked about how they had to hang together. This was the worst moment of their lives.

“I never thought I’d say this,” Sean said, “but I can’t wait to be in a hospital bed.”

Hours passed, and they struggled to keep awake. Sometime after 4 am, they heard sirens. They yelled for help, but the sirens faded as rescue crews moved past them. Thirty minutes later, the sound returned, this time from the opposite direction. The ping-pong of sirens continued for what seemed like hours as emergency-response teams tried to find the accident site. Finally, the young men heard footsteps. With what little voice they still had, they screamed again. Flashlight beams hit the trees around them, and they saw firefighters running their way.

More than 200 rescuers took part in the search. The plane had crashed in rough terrain littered with marshes.

At the crash site, they found Brian Early dead. The firefighters draped their jackets over the young men. Sean and Jason listened as a rescuer radioed their discovery: “Two alive,” he said. “One . . . .” He paused, then moved out of earshot of Sean and Jason. The firefighters took Sean first, hoisting him onto a stretcher and carrying him on their shoulders. “You’re the man, Jason!” Sean called out. “You’re the man!”

It took 45 minutes to reach the ambulance. The firefighters covered Sean in a blanket, and as the ambulance drove off, he wondered if he had just awakened from a bad dream.

At St. Luke’s Cornwall Hospital in Newburgh, New York—on the Hudson River some ten miles east of the crash site—doctors and nurses converged on Sean’s stretcher. Minutes later, he heard Jason arrive at the hospital, cursing as nurses cut off his clothes. “Somebody call my mom,” Jason said.

Call it a mother’s intuition: Joy Sutherland, Sean’s mom, had awakened in her house off Alexandria’s Janneys Lane at 1:20 am.

The daughter of a World War II Navy veteran who started an exporting business in the area, Joy had grown up in Alexandria. In 1997, after her divorce from Sean’s father—who had worked at MCI before starting a remodeling company—she got a real-estate license.

With a feeling that something was wrong, she called her ex-husband. He was waiting for Sean at Stewart airport outside Newburgh. He hadn’t heard anything. Joy checked the Lynchburg basketball roster online, found that Jason was from the Philadelphia suburb of Radnor, and called information for the Early family’s phone number.

The call woke Kathy Early. She checked the flight locator Brian kept in their home; everything looked normal. When Joy told her the plane hadn’t landed, she wondered if Brian had turned back to Philly for some reason.

Ten minutes later, Kathy called Joy. “Are you alone?” she said. “There’s been a 911 call.”

Both families arrived at the hospital in Newburgh before noon on November 21. Doctors put off surgery on Sean’s back, hoping the bones would fuse naturally, but his pain was unbearable. He was transferred to the Westchester Medical Center’s trauma unit, an hour south. Five days later, doctors operated, fusing the bones and inserting a rod in his back.

Jason was stabilized at St. Luke’s and sent to Westchester shortly after Sean. Sedated, he was able to wiggle his toes and squeeze his sister Molly’s hand. Two days later, he whispered, “I love you,” to his girlfriend, Ashley.

Four days after the crash, doctors operated on his legs, placing metal rods along both femurs to help the bones mend. Jason was preparing for another round of surgeries on his legs and wrist when he developed severe problems with his respiratory system. His temperature skyrocketed. Doctors induced a coma and told the Early family that Jason had a 50/50 shot at surviving.

The Earlys—Jason’s aunts and uncles, mother, sister, and girlfriend—kept vigil at the hospital. Devout Catholics, they called on loved ones to pray and kept friends updated through the hospital’s Web site. When Jason was placed into a capsulelike device intended to clear the fluid out of his lungs, they found encouragement in a coincidence they wrote about in an online post: “Ok guys, get this. . . . There are hundreds of these [devices] at Westchester, but guess which one Jason is in . . . the one with #15 in RED and WHITE lettering!!!! For those who don’t already know, Jason plays basketball for Lynchburg College and their colors are RED and WHITE, and his number is 15!!!!”

A day later, Early was still in critical condition, but the breathing machine had stabilized him. He came down with pneumonia, as doctors expected, but his temperature dropped. “Baby steps,” the family posted. “This is still a marathon, not a sprint, and Jas needs all the love and prayers he can get right now.”

On December 8—13 days after he had gone into a coma—Jason opened his eyes and moved his fingers. The next day, doctors moved him to a regular bed.

He continued to improve the week before Christmas. He started eating again—first ice, then applesauce, and on his last day at Westchester, chicken nuggets. Slowly his speech returned. First, it was only lip-synching to Sugarland and Marc Cohn songs that his cousin played in the hospital, but later he made surprise phone calls to family.

Five players from the New York Knicks heard about Jason’s story and visited him, as did the firefighters who had rescued him. He watched a DVD of Lynchburg’s first game after the accident. Before the game, a Lynchburg fan prayed: “Tonight, O God, this game is for Sean and Brian and Jason.”

Jason’s mother was overcome by his improvement. She wrote: “He is fighting so hard to come back to us. His spirit is incredibly strong and we are so proud of him.” Then, she wrote directly to Sean: “You are part of our heart, Sean, and we all love you.”

Sean, at home in Alexandria, thought about his friend and despaired. He wanted to see Jason, to talk through everything and fill in the blanks in his memory. But he didn’t want to see him like this.

He worried that the crash was his fault. If he hadn’t asked for the ride, he reasoned, none of this would have happened. Jason would still have his father and wouldn’t be lying in a hospital facing an uncertain future.

Before Christmas, Jason was transferred to the University of Pennsylvania hospital and, a few days later, to Bryn Mawr Rehabilitation Hospital outside Philadelphia. Soon after, Joy Sutherland drove Sean and his girlfriend to Philly to visit.

As the boys tossed a tiny ball back and forth, they talked about the crash. Sean voiced his fears about having caused it all. Early had his own worries—that Sean had trusted him and his father to keep him safe but they hadn’t. Each assured the other that his fears were misplaced. They had needed each other out there. If one of them had died, they wondered, would the other have survived?

“Remember when you said, ‘I can’t wait to be in a hospital bed’?” Early asked. Sean nodded. “Now I can’t wait to get the hell out of here.”

Someone had blown up a picture of Jason playing basketball and propped it against the far wall. The photograph was from the game against Methodist before the crash. In it, Jason wraps his arm around a Methodist player to deliver an acrobatic pass.

“You know,” Sean said, “that pass was to me.”

Investigators haven’t yet determined the cause of the crash. A preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board concludes that there was “no external evidence of a catastrophic engine failure.” The parachute system was found stowed in its position, uninflated.

Jason says he believes everything happens for a reason, though he’s still searching for how to explain the crash. Sometimes he wonders if it was all a dream.

On January 26, two months after the crash, Jason left the hospital with a walker and returned home. A few weeks later, more than 1,000 people gathered at the family’s church for Brian Early’s funeral. Before the service, the crowd stood and clapped, a spontaneous ovation to honor him. It lasted five minutes.

After several of Early’s friends spoke, Jason walked to the lectern. He told a story about how he and his father had once walked up the 18th green of a Philadelphia golf course when his dad turned to him, put his arms around him, and said: “You’ll never walk alone.”

Days after the funeral, Sean and Jason walked together across the basketball court at Lynchburg for senior night. The crowd cheered. Later, as the announcer called out the starting lineups, Jason’s friend and housemate Evan Fancourt pulled off his warm-up to reveal Jason’s number-15 jersey.

Jason graduated with his class in May. He continues physical therapy, can move all his fingers, and is playing golf again. This summer, at the family’s lake house in Wisconsin, he sprinkled some of his father’s ashes in the water.

Sean played in a basketball league in Alexandria this summer and coached at several area camps while running his own landscaping business. He has returned to Lynchburg for his senior year with the hope of playing basketball.

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This article first appeared in the October 2008 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles like it, click here.