Great Cacapon pilot recovering from plane crash, five-hour quest for help

by Kate Shunney

At some point in the five hours it took Ron Garrison to find help after his plane crashed in a wooded area near Cumberland, he thought he might just lay in the thorny underbrush and not get up again.

The 76-year-old Great Cacapon man who has flown planes for more than 30 years is still recovering from injuries sustained in that crash on the afternoon of June 8.

Skin on both arms was torn away in spots when his plane hit the trees near Mexico Farms airport. A gash on his leg is still healing, and so are the third-degree chemical burns that came from being stuck in a muddy swamp where gasoline from his plane’s fuel tanks had pooled.

Garrison had taken off from the Cumberland airport on the afternoon of June 8 and was in the flight path of Mexico Farms airport when one of the latches of the plane’s canopy broke. The canopy is the clear bubble that fits over the pilot and co-pilot. Garrison said the passenger side latch gave way, but he calculated that he should be able to make it to Mexico Farms to land.

“I was at 1000 feet doing about 80 miles per hour. I thought I should be able to make it,” he said. He had just passed over the Potomac and could see the landing strip when the pilot-side latch on the canopy broke.

“You can’t fly this plane with no canopy,” Garrison said.

“It was like somebody grabbed me by the seat of my pants and yanked hard. I dropped 1,000 feet in about two seconds,” he said.

Thinking he could bring the plane out of the drop, he gave it full throttle, he said. It didn’t work.

“That plane was coming down no matter what I did,” Garrison said.

Ron Garrison’s crash plane in a wooded area near Mexico Farms airport in the Cumberland area. Latches on the pilot’s canopy broke during flight, downing the plane.
Photo by Shannon Sneden

His plane slammed into saplings and came to rest on its left wing, with the right wing roughly 10-15 feet off the ground.

“Everything in the cockpit went flying. Thank god I’ve got good seatbelts,” Garrison said.

Almost immediately, Garrison said his pilot training kicked in.

“I got everything stowed away, killed the master switch, switched off the avionics,” he said. With the electrical service to the plane switched off, Garrison swung his legs up over the fuselage.

To get out of the plane wreckage, he slid down the wing. He didn’t realize until then he had crashed in a swamp.

“I slid down the wing and landed in mud and water about a foot deep,” Garrison said.

“It was just like a marshy swamp. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t roll over or stand up. It was the craziest thing,” he said. “It took me an hour to get rolled over.”

Once he was able to release his feet from the mud, Garrison rolled onto his belly, then got his hands and knees under him, held onto the plane wing and finally stood up.

It was then he could take a look at the scene around him.

His plane’s wing was broken where it connected to the fuel tank.

He was standing in a wooded area, and could see a berm about 200 feet high near an old railroad trestle.

“That berm was real, real steep,” Garrison said.

Deciding he would head in that direction, Garrison first had to make it through the swampy area.

“I’m 76 years old and this is no easy task,” he said.

Making it to the bottom of the berm, Garrison considered the climb ahead of him.

“I thought, ‘A billygoat couldn’t climb that’,” he said.

Determined to find his way to help, Garrison looked at the saplings on the side of the steep hill and tried to devise a path up to the top.

“I’d go about 30 feet, sapling to sapling,” he said. Twice he lost a shoe, which rolled down the hill. He went back down to retrieve it, put it back on, then retraced his path back up.

Hours after the crash, Garrison was fatigued and thirsty, running out of energy.

“I would have to lay down and get my strength back to keep going,” he said.

“Finally I got to the top of the berm as it was getting dark and broke off a branch for a walking stick,” said Garrison. He walked about 30 feet, then had to lay down again.

“I’d look at the sky and it’s getting darker and I thought, ‘I have to keep going’,” he said.

Help seemed within reach when he finally heard sounds of people nearby.

“I heard some kids screaming and walked in that direction,” said Garrison. He called out repeatedly for help, telling them to call 911. The kids ran back to their house nearby, and shortly after, an adult appeared.

“Dad comes out of the back of the house with a halogen light strapped to his head. Their house was 50-75 feet below me,” said Garrison.  He heard the father call out, “Is there anyone out there?”

When Garrison yelled back, the father was surprised.

“Holy shit, there is someone up there!” the man said.

He asked what he could do for Garrison, who asked them to call 911 and bring him some water.

“The kids ran up the hill like a squirrel with water bottles,” said Garrison.

Shortly after, an ambulance crew and police arrived. EMS personnel retrieved Garrison and got him into an ambulance.

Rescue crews stand under Ron Garrison’s crashed plane in the dark.
Photo from the Allegany County Sheriff’s Department

First responders thought he had been in a dirt bike or ATV accident. They could tell he’d been in a crash of some kind.

“This was an airplane crash,” Garrison told them.

An Allegany County Sheriff’s deputy said 911 hadn’t gotten any reports of a downed plane or distress signal. Maryland State Police Trooper 5 – the agency’s helicopter – was called in to help find the crashed plane and located it right away.

Most aircraft have an ELT – an emergency locator transmitter.

“They got about 100 feet up and the ELT was going off like crazy. I was so far down in a hole, the signal couldn’t get out,” Garrison said.

He found out later that friends at the Cumberland airport had started to look for him because they saw his truck was still at the facility and knew he didn’t fly after dark. Thinking he might be struggling to return, they turned the headlights on several of their trucks toward the runway, they told him.

Garrison’s plane was still sitting in the wooded area off a nearby hayfield 10 days after it had crashed there. Friends have checked on it and told him it’s in remarkably decent shape, and the engine is perfectly fine. When the ground dries out, they’ll bring a trailer in and lower the plane’s body onto it to tow it out.

Ron Garrison and Sharon Palmeri next to Garrison’s plane. The photo was taken two years ago.

The day of the crash, Garrison had just sold the plane to two guys he’d taken out for a flight.

“They had made arrangements to pick it up and take it home,” he said.

Garrison had built the plane himself in 2012. It had just 300 flight hours on it.

Thinking back on the series of events during the crash, Garrison said he wasn’t sure he’d be able to keep going to find help. It’ll take him awhile to get back in working order, he thinks.

“When I was laying in the mud, I watched gas drip out of the tank and thought it’s a good thing I shut off the electrical system. If it had sparked and caused a fire, I wouldn’t have survived,” he said matter-of-factly.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has said they will inspect the plane when it’s extracted from the crash site. Garrison said they told him other airplanes built from the same plane kit have had issues with the canopy latches popping open during flight.

Garrison was pleased to hear the rest of the plane – from the landing gear to the tail – are still in perfect shape.

“I built that pretty strong,” he said with a laugh.