By Laura Barlament
On a crisp, sunny fall morning at the Orange County Airport, just west of the Hudson River Valley, Erik Unhjem ’72 greets me with a firm handshake. Tall and ruggedly handsome, Unhjem (pronounced “un-yem”) is a practical man who wastes no words. His airplane, a Socata TB9 Tampico, is on the tarmac, ready to taxi out to the runway. We have a mission to fly.
Unhjem explains the aircraft to me: how to climb in under the gullwing doors, how to buckle up and use the headset. A large gray animal crate fills up most of the back seat. We are undertaking today’s flight to transport a dog, which was rescued from a kill shelter, from Long Island to the Boston area. Unhjem volunteers for the nonprofit organization Pilots N Paws, which connects people who save pets with pilots who transport the animals to adoptive families.
“It’s a great excuse to fly places I might never go to otherwise,” says Unhjem, a dog-lover who still thinks every day about his pup who died years ago. “I usually at least get a kiss. If I’m really lucky, I get a face washing.”
“I can never forget what I’ve been through, but I don’t let it define me. People are amazed that I wanted to go in a small airplane again. It’s just what I wanted to do.”
Unhjem is a man who has learned, through the bitterest of experience, not to take for granted that he can feel a dog’s tongue lovingly plaster his skin with warm slobber. Just a little over three years ago, two-thirds of his body was on fire. He was in an airplane almost exactly like the one he is flying today, when it lost power and fell from the sky, skipping over the roof of a house, hitting a tree, crashing into a Dumpster, and bursting into flame.
In that same crash, Unhjem lost his college sweetheart and loving wife of 30 years, Jane Waleski Unhjem ’74.
The Unhjems were in that Socata TB10 Tobago, on August 19, 2012, at Brookhaven airport in Suffolk County, Long Island, for a pre-purchase test flight with the plane’s owner. Flying was a lifelong dream for Unhjem. After many interruptions by what he calls “Life with a capital L,” he had earned his pilot’s license in 2005. He loved the Socata’s solid handling, well-designed interior, and the view through the almost wrap-around windows afforded by the gullwing doors. It was a real sky-lover’s bird.
He flew with the local airplane club and the Civil Air Patrol, but he chafed against the restrictions of using borrowed aircraft. He longed to fly where he wanted, when he wanted — to take overnight trips, to volunteer with Pilots N Paws, to experience all of the joy and freedom of escaping Earth’s gravity.
(Unhjem’s email footer has a quote from World War II pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “I fly because it frees my mind from the tyranny of petty things.” “It’s an eloquent way of saying, ‘The bullshit stays on the ground,’” says Unhjem.)
But the owner of that Socata TB10 Tobago had not properly maintained the aircraft — and he hid its condition from the Unhjems. The aircraft rose with difficulty from the runway, and almost immediately descended again because, as it turns out, the carburetor mixture control arm was broken. The fuel mixture was not rich enough to power the airplane’s ascent, and it spiraled out of control.
It crashed on a residential street of Shirley, New York, miraculously injuring no one on the ground. Neighbors rushed out to help and immediately phoned 911. Unhjem remembers rolling on the ground to extinguish the flames on his body, then returning to the plane to pull Jane out. Within minutes, a medical helicopter transported first Jane, and then him, to Stony Brook Medical Center.
Unhjem harbors no bitterness against the owner who caused him such grief and loss — he died in the crash as well. Instead, Unhjem put all of the considerable strength of his will toward recovering, first physically, then emotionally, and returning to his life, his work, his flying.
Although the Stony Brook doctors predicted that he would be spending from three to nine months in the hospital — if he survived at all — Unhjem got out after 27 days. “I turned all my attention to getting better. I did everything the doctors told me to do and more,” he says. The pain was excruciating, but he gritted his teeth and started moving again.
Thanks to help from his sister-in-law, Grete, he was able to return home from the hospital, instead of going to a rehabilitation center. Wrapped head to toe in bandages, struggling into compression stockings, dealing with scars up to an inch thick, he continued the agonizing process of recovery from such severe burns. And he grieved, deeply, the loss of Jane.
College friends remember her sparkling charm — and the effect she had on Unhjem. “When Jane came into his life, all of us who knew him saw the transformation,” says Jane Primerano ’72. “He became more gentle in a way, more approachable. She was a calming and a steadying influence on him. We all knew they were in it for the long haul.”
An education major, Jane Unhjem became a devoted educator, beloved by students, parents, and school personnel. At the end of her life, she was the assistant superintendent for curriculum and development for the Goshen School District. A music minor, she was an advocate for music and arts education, and Unhjem established an annual college scholarship for high school seniors active in music programs in her memory. They have awarded three $1,000 scholarships so far.
But while he mourned and suffered, Unhjem also says he became aware of the gift of life and the many miracles he had experienced in surviving the crash. He thought of the book Unbroken, which he had listened to as an audiobook while biking shortly before the crash, and its hero, Louis Zamperini, a World War II pilot who crashed over the Pacific and survived 47 days on the open ocean and two and a half years as a Japanese POW. Awakening each day, Unhjem marveled at the sound of birdsong and the feeling of crisp fall air on his delicate skin.
“I was resolved,” he says, “that I was going to pick up the pieces of my life and move forward. As they say, the rest is history. I can never forget what I’ve been through, but I don’t let it define me. People are amazed that I wanted to go in a small airplane again. It’s just what I wanted to do.”
The promise of flying again never left his mind. As fast as he could, he got off the heavy painkillers. “I knew drugs like Oxycodone were not friendly to the FAA,” he said. He surrendered his pilot’s medical certificate at the FAA’s request. But after a “protracted dialogue with the FAA’s Medical Certification Branch,” it was returned to him. About eight months after the crash, he started flying again.
For his first flight, he scheduled a plane with the flying club, accompanied by an instructor. “I admit to having a little trepidation when doing the pre-flight check, but as soon as the wheels left the ground, I was fine.” After making a steep 45-degree turn, which requires a pilot to skillfully maintain altitude, and feeling the bump of his own wake, he said, “I was so pleased.” He completed three takeoffs and landings. “The instructor said, ‘I’d fly with you. You’re good to go.’ At that point, I resumed my quest to find and buy a plane.”
Unhjem bought his Tampico N167GT in November 2014. He also signed himself up for eHarmony, bought some concert tickets, and started dating. In October 2015, he married Nina, a fellow cycling and flying enthusiast.
At this point in his recovery, the trauma he endured is not immediately evident. His face looks smooth — in fact, he got a flash burn that gave him a “free face lift in effect,” he says. But, sitting next to him in the narrow confines of the aircraft, I can see that on his wrists, hands, and neck, whorls and ridges of thick pink scars remain. He tells me that all over his body, the skin is a “crazy patchwork of different coloration” — but that’s nothing compared to how thick the scars used to be, “like wearing a suit of armor.” He is still undergoing treatment with a dermatologist and a massage therapist to loosen the scar tissue and regain his skin’s flexibility.
Before takeoff, Unhjem goes through a pre-flight checklist with meticulous precision. The ascent seems effortless, and he asks air traffic control for “following” — i.e. to notify him of surrounding traffic. “It’s kind of like having an angel on your shoulder looking out for you,” he says.
The magnificent scenery of the Hudson River Valley unfurls beneath us, with New York City a tiny landmark in the distance and the Long Island Sound a silver stripe at the horizon.
While I’m gawking at the views, Unhjem is all safety consciousness. We’re flying at 5,500 feet, Unhjem tells me, a little higher than he might normally fly, because we’ll be crossing the Long Island Sound. This altitude would give him enough room to make it back to land if the engine died.
At the same time, he’s clearly enjoying himself. The radio crackles, alerting him to another plane located at “one o’clock.” The other aircraft looks like a faraway black speck. “All that talk in the media about crowded skies,” Unhjem sniffs. “It’s not crowded at all.” He tells me about a “fun trip” he took with Nina. They flew out to Montauk for a seafood dinner, then back at low altitude along the south coast of Long Island and past the New York City skyline. “It was fabulous,” he says.
As we start the descent to Long Island, Unhjem points out Islip airport to our right. But we are headed to a different nearby airport. We are headed to Brookhaven.
It’s Unhjem’s first time back since that terrible day three years and two months ago. But to look at him and see him operate his aircraft, you would never know. After a picture-perfect landing, I applaud.
At the airport, while we wait at the terminal for the dog, I ask Unhjem how he feels about returning to this place. At first he denies feeling anything. But then he adds, “I felt a little bit of trepidation. But I’ve gotten over it. That’s what learning, living, and loving do.”
Then the dog arrives. Unhjem beams when he gets his face washing. And we’re off to Boston to complete the mission, another life rescued.