Without aid, pilot may have drowned

Every accident, it seems, carries its own unique set of circumstances that affect the outcome.

Back in February, Bill Cavanagh's crop-spraying helicopter crashed in an orchard near Escalon. The 69-year-old Modestan nearly died from internal injuries, the most serious of which was a torn aorta — so severe, I'm told, few survive it because they don't usually make it to the emergency room in time.

He also broke some ribs, his back, punctured a lung and doctors were able to reattach part of a finger nearly lost after being sliced in the wreckage. He needed several surgeries and for a time — a couple of times, actually — it appeared he wouldn't make it, said Pat Love, his ex-wife who is among the around-the-clock group of caregivers tending to Cavanagh as he continues his recovery at home.

In Cavanagh's case, consider this: Had help not arrived, and he perished at the scene that day, the cause of death probably wouldn't have been a torn aorta, broken back, punctured lung or any of the other aforementioned injuries.

The cause of death, most likely, would have been drowning. Yes, drowning. In an orchard.

I'll explain why momentarily.

Clearly, Cavanagh is a guy who likes to live on the edge. A desk job? Not a chance. He once raced late model sportsman cars at Saugus, Bakersfield and other NASCAR stops.

He began flying airplanes in the 1960s and helicopters in 1994. He and son Rick Cavanagh own Cavanagh Flying Service which, after losing its only helicopter in the crash, isn't flying at all.

On Feb. 2, Cavanagh finished spraying herbicide on a field of oats and rinsed his tanks. Heading home, the generator light of his Bell OH-58 helicopter went on, indicating a malfunction.

Because of the vibration and stress, vital parts of a helicopter must be replaced after a prescribed number of hours of operation regardless of whether they appear to be worn or damaged. He said his machine recently had been serviced and those parts replaced. So he suspected the generator light itself — not the generator — had malfunctioned.

Seconds later, he realized he was in trouble.

"I heard a grinding noise," Cavanagh said. "I knew something was going bad and I started looking for a place to park. I was talking to Craig, our field guy, and I told him, 'The thing just quit.' I couldn't get to the spot I'd picked."

As the copter descended — rapidly — he knew it would go down in an almond orchard near River Road. It hit a tree as the cockpit slammed nose first into the ground.

Seat-belted and unconscious, he dangled upside down. Jet fuel leaked from the damaged tanks, dripping down into his helmet and pooling in the nose of the cockpit.

If not for three orchard workers and area resident Susan Heiny who heard the troubled aircraft, saw it going down and rushed to his aid, Cavanagh likely would have died by drowning in the jet fuel filling his helmet.

Instead, they got him out of the copter and he went to Doctors Medical Center in Modesto, where he was in a coma for about two weeks before going to a rehabilitation hospital in Turlock.

When he regained consciousness, the medication did most of his talking, ex-wife Love said.

"He thought he owned the hospital (Doctors)," she said. He wanted to sell it, she added. "And he thought he had strippers coming to see him."

One night, he borrowed a cell phone and called 911 to report he was being held against his will.

"They took the phone from him and told (dispatchers) that he was in the hospital," she said.

"I don't remember any of that," Cavanagh says now. "I really don't."

But he does remember the thrill of flying and would prefer to return to the sky. That would require buying another helicopter, which would cost about $400,000. And he'd have to prove to the Federal Aviation Administration that he is still capable. The injury to his aorta, he argues, shouldn't be an issue.

"If I could (pass) a flight physical, I'd love to fly again," he said. "It's not like I had a heart attack. I just tore myself apart."

More likely is that he'd get another copter and hire someone else to fly it while he drums up business.

And soon, he hopes personally to thank Heiny and the three orchard workers who saved his life and kept a man whose helicopter crashed on dry land from becoming a drowning victim.

"I guess I was lucky," he said.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or

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