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Pilot Injured in Single-Engine Plane Crash Returns to the Cockpit with a New Goal

Brett Hannaford wants to be the nation’s first paralyzed air show aerobatic pilot.

You would never know from watching Brett Hannaford pilot a high-performance airplane through aerial tricks that he’s paralyzed from the waist down. He’s quite the dancer up there in the air.

Who could imagine not only surviving a small plane crash and sustaining a T-10 complete spinal cord injury, but then racing back to the cockpit with the goal of becoming the nation’s first paralyzed air show aerobatic pilot?

Just two weeks after his Feb. 21, 2013 discharge from Shepherd Center, Brett, 41, of Harrisburg, N.C., returned to work full time, and he’s now on a mission to offer an example of what’s possible for others who have sustained spinal cord injuries.

“That’s the beauty of this – the fact that you get injured, you have to adapt, you still continue in life,” he says. “You don’t have to give up on what you love, or what you’re passionate about. You have to find a new way to do it.”

Dec. 1, 2012, offered Brett a new experience.

The sound of his plane ripping through the air was louder than usual with the normal hum of its motor absent. The single engine was dead.

As they sank abruptly to Earth after failing to restart, Brett and Mike Matthews – a long-time pilot and instructor – found a grass strip among the rolling hills in the North Carolina countryside outside of Charlotte.

The field offered hope, but the speed brakes (flaps) malfunctioned, and another problem quickly became apparent.

“When we were about 50 feet above, we saw power lines and farmers,” Brett recalls. “They were trying to get equipment out of the way. We had too much air speed, and we would probably end up getting into them. We made a hard left turn into an adjacent field.

“We were full of fuel,” he adds. “We wanted to keep the plane from tumbling because we knew we would never get out [because of the likelihood of fire].”

The adjacent field was much shorter with a tree line down range.

That hard turn scrubbed airspeed and altitude. The plane, a Vans RV-4 experimental two-seater, was too low and slow to clear the trees.

One option remained:  Put the plane down hard.

Brett and Mike plowed into a 57-foot landing.

Each man sustained a compression fracture to his spinal cord in nearly the same place. Mike’s injury was incomplete, and Brett’s was complete.

“I was the lucky one,” Mike says. “I was like 160 pounds, and he was 190. Brett carried more weight into the impact.”

Mike’s spine has been fused from T-10 through L-3. He walks and has returned to work as a contract pilot for NASCAR teams, as well as a crop duster and as an aerobatics instructor.

Brett spent time in a hospital near his home outside of Charlotte, transferring to Shepherd Center on Jan. 16, 2013.

Following his Feb. 21 discharge, he returned to work on March 4 as a project controls manager for Chicago Bridge & Iron building power plants. He supervises work primarily around the United States and in Mexico.

“I jumped right back. . . business as usual,” Brett explains. “I handle a lot of the upfront execution, planning and strategy working with a management team to execute projects on schedule and on budget.”

This flying bug is not new.

Brett began taking lessons as a high school senior. At Lenoir Community College (in N.C.), he earned his private pilot license along with instrument, commercial pilot and multi-engine ratings.

While still a student and after transferring to East Carolina University to major in construction management, he worked as a charter pilot. That continued until moving back to Charlotte in 1999 to pursue a career in construction management.

He took aerobatics lessons from Mike in 2011 as a hobby, saying the difference between then and now is, “I had aspirations before, but now I have purpose.”

When Brett flies aerobatics, Mike is in the plane working the rudder pedals with his feet.

The goal is to retrofit a plane with hand controls, allowing Brett to fly solo.

“We’ve started designing a system,” Mike explains. “It’s going to be similar to what is in an automobile.. He’s going to have three different sets of controls [on the stick]. It will be about Brett’s preference and what can we fit.

“The problem is, we don’t have three hands,” he adds. “If we put three controls in there on the control stick, both rudder pedals, the throttle [and the wheel brake(s)], that’s a lot in a high-performance aircraft.”

You’d be nuts to think that Brett and Co. won’t get it done.

Remember, he’s a pilot on a mission that his injury will not slow down.

“That’s exactly why I want to go out on the air show scene, to show people that even with my injury, I still get after it,” Brett says. “It’s a huge message:  People can still do what they want to do with a debilitating injury.

“It doesn’t have to be the end of the world,” he adds. “If you want something bad enough, you’ll make it happen. Life doesn’t come to an end; you just find new ways of doing things.”

For more information on spinal cord injury rehabilitation at Shepherd Center, click here.

Written by Matt Winkeljohn
Photos Courtesy of Brett Hannaford


About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.