In the wake of the missing Malaysian jetliner comes “Falling Through Clouds,” a powerful account of the many inherent risks that come when flying in any of the 224,000 private aircraft operating in the United States. The accident rate for single-engine piston aircraft is significantly higher than the rate of commercial aircraft — like 53 times higher. Many private plane crashes, including the one that killed Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, can be traced to pilot error, and Type-A risk takers, such as John F. Kennedy Jr., are often at the controls.
In “Falling Through Clouds,” author and former BBC correspondent Damian Fowler tells an unadorned and heartbreaking story of how two brave girls — ages 3 and 4 — survived horrific burns and the loss of their mother and uncle in a 2003 plane crash in the North Woods of Minnesota. It was Lily and Grace Pearson’s first ride in an airplane, and their uncle Charlie Erickson was the pilot. The weather was far from ideal for flying and later it would be determined that pilot error was to blame. Rescuers had no hope of finding survivors. When Grand Marais Chief Deputy Sheriff Mark Falk came upon the smoldering wreckage he initially thought he spotted a pale doll.
“The girl, who looked to be about three years old, was conscious and lying on a seat that was completely reclined next to another little girl of similar age who was lying on her stomach, but also conscious. Both appeared to be calm.”
Fowler writes unflinchingly of the girls’ surgeries at the burn unit of Regions Hospital in St. Paul while also recounting the business side of the accident. As hospital bills mount, the girls’ father, Toby Pearson, is shocked to find that the billion-dollar insurance company Old Republic has denied his claim. In turn, the company sues the Erickson estate because pilot Charlie Erickson had “falsely answered” whether he had had a previous accident.
“Falling Through Clouds” balances this David vs. Goliath legal fight against the devastating emotional and physical recoveries of all parties, including the widow of Charlie Erickson, the girls’ Aunt Carolyn. The judicial and statutory resolutions that Toby Pearson and his lawyer finally effect are indeed remarkable, but what trumps all the legal machinations are Grace and Lily’s survival.
Three years later, as the girls ready themselves for their first flight since the crash, family members recall something Grace said not long after the accident. “It’s not the flying I mind, it’s the crashing.”
Stephen J. Lyons is the author of three books, most recently “The 1,000-Year Flood: Destruction, Loss, Rescue, and Redemption Along the Mississippi River.”