Plane crash survivor ready to fly again

Ed Hinkle had never considered himself a superstitious man, but the events of Friday, Aug. 13, changed his life forever.

"Don't do anything on Friday the 13th," said Hinkle, who survived a nighttime plane crash into the Atlantic Ocean that shattered eight ribs, his spine, sternum, both ankles and a wrist. The crash also lacerated his spleen and collapsed a lung, making his attempted two-mile swim to shore all the more torturous.

He doesn't remember the crash and has no idea what went wrong in the tiny Cessna 172 Skyhawk he had rented from Island City Flying Services to practice nighttime takeoffs and landings. The practice maneuvers are required by the Federal Aviation Administration for pilots who intend to carry passengers.

No one was in the plane with Hinkle when it crashed into calm seas at about 10 p.m. on that moonless night.

"My memory starts with me floating in the water with the plane sinking in front of me," he said Tuesday during his first visit to Mel Fisher's Treasures, surrounded by friends who have been both above and below the earth's surface with Hinkle on countless occasions.

Hinkle was part of Mel Fisher's "golden crew" of divers who found and excavated the mother lode, or main pile of treasure from the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de Atocha, which sank off Key West in 1622.

Fisher's crew found the pile of silver bars and gold coins in July 1985, and Hinkle lived the excitement with his friends and fellow divers.

More recently, he had been logging more hours in the air than under water, and was also working for a company that has a contract with the Transportation Safety Administration to provide security at Key West International Airport.

A licensed pilot for more than 15 years, Hinkle said the crash will not keep him out of the cockpit.

"Sure, I'll fly again," he said.

But it may be a while.

Hinkle's ankles remain casted, and he is living at the newly renovated Key West Health and Rehabilitation Center on Stock Island, where he continues to receive physical therapy. Doctors expect a full recovery, but it's been a long road since a nearby fishing boat found him floating in the water and asked if his boat had sunk.

" 'No,' I told them, 'My plane crashed,' " Hinkle said, recalling the flight bag that he used as a flotation device and the broken plane window that served as a makeshift paddle.

He was in the water for about an hour, and noticed the tide was going out.

"I knew I had to get into shore, or else I'd end up in the Gulf Stream headed out to sea," he said. "Then I saw a shark fin nearby, but told myself that I couldn't let my mind focus on sharks in the area."

The broken ribs and other injuries prevented Hinkle from climbing aboard the fishing boat, so he held onto the transom while the fishermen radioed the Coast Guard.

"The Key West Fire and Rescue boat arrived, and those guys were my heroes," he said. "They got in the water and put me on a backboard."

A portable ultrasound scanner revealed several broken bones, and while en route to King's Pointe Marina, the rescue crew told Hinkle he'd be airlifted to Ryder Trauma Center in Miami, where he spent a month in the Intensive Care Unit and then 2 1/2 months in a Miami rehabilitation center.

He likely has another few weeks at the Stock Island facility, but is making astonishing progress while keeping a positive attitude. Doctors say his memory of the crash may come back in bits and pieces, or not at all.

"Something happened up there, but I don't know what," he said.

A treasure chest with Hinkle's name on it has been in the gift shop of Mel Fisher's Treasures since the crash, and donations are being collected to help him with medical and living expenses. A fundraiser is being planned for January, but the specifics have not been finalized.

For now, Hinkle is happy to be alive and on the road to a full recovery.

"I was so lucky to just survive," he said. "But absolutely I'll fly again."

Just not on Friday the 13th.

BY MANDY MILES Citizen Staff

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