Kevin Potter was running errands late Thursday morning near the airport in Blaine when he saw a plane coming in for a landing veer to the right and then left.
“It looked like he was in trouble,” said Potter, 41, of Andover.
An instant later, pilot Charles Cook, 65, of Ham Lake, crashed his vintage military trainer in a fiery blaze that threatened to engulf him until Potter and Jonathan Wells, 22, of Tucson, arrived.
Both men climbed a gate on a barbed wire fence and ran to Cook, who was rolling himself to put out the flames. They took off his parachute and dragged him away from the exploding aircraft.
Cook was coherent and talking, but “you could tell he was badly hurt,” said Potter, who had already called 911.
Cook was taken to Hennepin County Medical Center for treatment of burns on his face, hands and arms, they said. Wells said he mentioned pain in his arm.
Just before the crash, Cook apparently knew there was a problem with his 1955 North American Aviation T-28B Trojan, a military training plane first used by the U.S. Navy and Air Force.
“I’ve got smoke in the cockpit. Let me see if I can get my gear down,” Cook was heard to say, according to audio recorded by the tower.
Potter and Wells, who did not know each other and were traveling separately near the Anoka County-Blaine Airport, downplayed their actions. They chalked it up to adrenaline and a desire to help.
“It’s just doing your job and doing your duty,” said Wells, who works for the Pima County Sheriff’s Department in Tucson. “It’s just another day.”
Wells, who grew up in Isanti, Minn., had been driving to Princeton with his mother when he saw the plane going down. He said he didn’t see his actions as unusual and that his training kicked in, he said.
“You don’t just want to sit there and let someone die,” Wells said.
“I knew I needed to try and help him,” said Potter, adding that he had never done anything like that before. “I didn’t think too much about it, I just kind of did it.”
Had Cook remained inside the plane, there was nothing they could have done, Potter said. It wasn’t clear whether he was thrown out or had ejected.
The airport, one of the busiest relievers in the metro area, was said to be Cook’s home airport.
Blaine Police Chief Brian Podany said the crash was “pretty rare. It’s been years since we’ve had one out here.”
He added that the quick action taken by Potter and Wells made a difference.
“This could have had a much different outcome if they hadn’t done that,” Podany said.
Federal authorities are heading an investigation of the crash.