Editor’s Note: Chris Sheridan lives in Los Angeles, California, and is 51 years old. In May 1991, he crashed the airplane he was flying, and his life changed forever. But just when he thought all hope was lost, he heard a voice in the wind – and it set his life on a new course of increased spiritual awareness and personal achievement after spinal cord injury.
Chris Sheridan: My Last Competitive Flight
In 1991, I was flying a Long-EZ, an experimental, high performance airplane that was home built by a friend of mine. The Long-EZ was the same plane that singer John Denver was in when it crashed, and Denver was killed.
I was participating in an air show and a competition for airplanes that were home built. The competitions with eight other contestants included a spot landing contest and a ribbon cutting contest. In the ribbon cutting contest, a plane would climb to 3,000 feet and then drop a roll of toilet paper (called the ribbon). Once that roll of paper reached 1,000 feet, the contest was over. The participants competed one at a time to try and cut the ribbon with the wing of their plane as it fell. The person who cut the ribbon the most number of times before the ribbon reached the hard deck at 1000 feet above the ground won.
This was my first time to compete in the ribbon cutting contest, so naturally I was nervous.
I wasn’t concerned about the danger of flying the airplane; I just didn’t want to embarrass myself by not performing well.
I didn’t think I’d win because some very experienced pilots were in this contest. However, I was able to make three cuts before the roll of paper reached the hard deck at 1,000 feet. One of the challenges in this contest was once you cut the ribbon, you had to make a tight circle all the way back around, find the ribbon again and then make your approach for the next cut. The pilot who made the most cuts before the ribbon reached the hard deck won. The ribbon was dropped from 3,000 feet, so there was a 2,000 foot margin of error – about 2 minutes – when pilots had to make as many cuts as possible on the ribbon.
I just had made my third cut and realized I was low on air speed. I put the plane into a steep climb, and when I did, the plane stalled.
The Long-EZ was supposed to be difficult to stall. I thought, “Why isn’t the plane responding to the controls?” I checked the engine, and it was still running. Once I moved the stick, I could see the control surfaces outside the plane moving. I knew the problem wasn’t mechanical. As I worked frantically, I remembered different pilots talking about what happened when a plane went into a deep stall with the nose was up, and the wings parallel to the ground.
To get out of the deep stall, you moved the rudders back and forth, you drifted a little to the left, next you hit the right rudder, and then you moved some to the right and hit the left rudder. If you were successful, you would recover the aerodynamics over the wings and recover. This type of recovery was similar to when an automobile got stuck in the snow, and you would go a little forward and some back and continue to move back and forth, until the car got the momentum to get out of the snow.
But as I kept moving the left and the right rudder, the plane fell tail first to the ground.
After I initiated the recover procedure, I remembered that the man who had taught me the procedure for getting out of a stall had stalled his plane at 10,000 feet, which meant he had 10,000 feet to get the plane to recover before he’d crash. But I didn’t initiate the stall procedure until my plane had fallen to about 1,000 feet or less. I could have solved the problem if I’d just had enough altitude to right the plane.
I called out, “Mayday!” on the plane’s radio knowing that time was short before I crashed.
Chris Made a Choice: Life or Death
That’s when I had a spiritual experience. As I watched the instrument panel, I saw numbers, graphs and instrumentation I didn’t recognize. I felt like I was in outer space. I could see the entire universe – the stars and the galaxies out to infinity. I zoomed in on one of the points of light and recognized that light as my life. Although my life seemed to be insignificant when I compared it to all the other lights I could see, I also realized that my life had significance in the universe. I felt very connected to all those other lights in the universe. I didn’t see my life flash before me, a tunnel with a light at the end of it or any other people.
Then I realized in that altered state that every one of those points of lights I saw was important, and that if any one of those lights was removed, the structure would collapse. That’s when I knew that my life was as important as the other lights that went out into infinity. I felt then that even if I died, I’d be okay. I also felt that my life had mattered, and that my life had a place in the universe.
As soon as I had that feeling of security, I heard a loud, subtle but strong whisper that asked me, ”Do you want to live or die?”
Although this happened over 25 years ago, I remember it as though only 5 minutes ago. The voice sounded like somebody was right there in the cockpit with me and continued to ask the same question again, only with much more urgency, “Do you want to live, or do you want to die?”
I’d assumed I had no choice in my fate. I was more than certain that I would die, and I thought being asked if I wanted to live was strange after I’d given up on being able to survive this plane crash. I actually paused before I answered.
I knew that if I chose life, I would be hurt and banged up in some way, but I also thought, “I’ll have a second chance at life.”
I thought if I accepted life, I could learn to do more, be more, grow more and possibly give more to the world. I felt if I accepted life, I could live with more purpose than I had before the plane stalled.
I answered, “Yes, I want to live.” From the instant I made the decision to live, I felt I was in a bubble of protection. So, before the plane hit the ground, I knew I would live, and my body would be damaged, but I’d still be me.
I heard the plane hit the ground, I saw the dust kick up around me, and the voice, the image of infinity and the lights and the instruments moving closer to my face were all gone. I had my breath knocked out of me.
Chris Gets Help after the Crash
As a teenager, I’d played ice hockey, had the breath knocked out of me and been concerned about whether I’d breathe again. That memory kept me from panicking after the crash.
As soon as I started to breath, I thought, “Oh, my God, this really hurts.” The pain I felt was in my back and in my chest. Instead of landing on its tail, the plane landed flat on its belly. Then I heard the roar of an engine, and I saw the pilot in the plane who had dropped the ribbon. He circled around the crash site and came back by me, about 50 feet off the ground. I gave him a thumbs-up.
A minute later a pickup truck came up next to the plane, and the driver of the truck jumped out and asked me if I was okay. Because the weather was extremely hot that day, I was trying to open the canopy. I asked, “Do you have a pair of pliers?” He took pliers, pulled the pins out of the canopy and opened the canopy.
When that canopy opened, I felt like I’d just hatched out of an egg or been underwater and finally surfaced. I couldn’t move my legs, and I felt certain I’d broken my back because I was paralyzed from the waist down. However, when I breathed that cool fresh air, I felt like I’d breathed for the first time ever.
The ambulance crew arrived next, put a brace around my neck and took their time getting me out of the plane, since they felt certain I’d broken my back. Luckily, trained medical personnel were at the airport where I’d crashed. They got me on a backboard, took me to a nearby hospital that stabilized me and then flew me to Utah to a major trauma center hospital. I stayed in intensive care there for 4 days, becoming more stabilized. I was amazed I had no internal or external bleeding from the crash or even a chipped tooth.
However, my second and third lumbar vertebrae in my back were completely destroyed.
Chris Adjusts to His New Normal
After surgery and rehab, I was told I would be an incomplete paraplegic with some movement in my legs. I could stand up without using a frame or a walker and didn’t need a catheter, because my spinal cord wasn’t completely severed. While in the hospital, I saw on television the first year anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and I knew I’d be a benefactor of that act.
Chris Sheridan Shares His Thoughts on Acceptance and Anxiety:
As I adjusted to riding a wheelchair, I noticed how few people were shown in wheelchairs in movies or on TV shows, except those like “Ironsides,” that used actors not in wheelchairs. I read a story then about a Calvin Klein model, who was in a wheelchair. I knew I didn’t want my entire life to be about my wheelchair and my disability.
I wanted my life to be about accomplishing something and living a normal life, although I happened to be in a wheelchair. I tried to meet people who had lives and careers that didn’t focus on their wheelchairs or their disabilities like Mike Hansel, who had been a photographer forever.
I wanted to try and help inspire people in wheelchairs that they still could become what they wanted to, although they were in wheelchairs.
When I moved back to Los Angeles, I started working with an organization called the Media Access Office that sought out acting opportunities for people with disabilities. For instance, if there was a role in a TV show or a movie for a blind person, we wanted to at least have some individuals who were blind to interview for that role. We didn’t ask or demand preferential treatment for people with disabilities, but we at least wanted people with disabilities to have chances to play the roles of people with disabilities. I pursued my own acting career as well.
Chris Sheridan is Featured on USA Up All Night Comedy Show:
When Christopher Reeves (Superman) was injured and had a spinal cord injury, the entire entertainment industry became more aware of people with disabilities. The media kept asking after Reeves was injured, “When and how will Christopher Reeves walk again?”
But from my perspective, walking was the least most important function for people to regain who had bodily injuries and especially spinal cord injuries. Having bodily function was far more important.
I felt people with spinal cord injuries needed to be able to go to the bathroom on their own, hug their children, feed themselves and accomplish many other tasks before worrying about walking.
Walking, to me, was like icing on the cake.
The question I was always asked the most was, “I see that you’ve hurt your back. Do you think you’ll ever walk again?” I’ve learned there are many more challenges to overcome before attacking the task of walking.
Chris Explores Education and Hopes to Make a Difference
After I was released from the hospital and finished my rehab, I decided to go back to school to learn what I could to help other people with disabilities. Before my accident, I had graduated from high school and had a private pilot’s license. My main interest was being a musician, and I played lead guitar with a moderately successful 1980s band called “Sweet Savage.” But I sold some of my guitars to pay for flying lessons. I had a job at the airport gassing up airplanes.
After leaving the hospital, I realized I was 28 years old, both my parents were teachers, I’d always made good grades in school, and I felt going to college was the right thing to do. I was a theater major and a journalism major. I wanted to explore different professions. My dad was a communications professor at a college, and my mom was a high school English teacher.
Communications seemed like the right thing for me to major in, and I actually found that I was much better at academics than I had been before the crash.
See Chris using his communications skills to narrate an IndyCar event in Los Angeles:
Because I had played in a bar band for 7 years and drank every night, the lure of going to a bar, instead of staying home and writing a paper or doing homework, just wasn’t that strong. By starting to college at 28, I could focus on my studies. I received a degree in performance studies from the communications department at Arizona State.
Besides working on my communications degree, I also attended a college that had a film production program in Scottsdale, Ariz., in the evenings for 3 years, at the same time I was working on my bachelor’s degree.
I learned to make short films and made some money at film festivals showing my film, “Walk This Way.”
I did this personal documentary film to answer the questions people had asked me when I became paraplegic. This short film was a permanent type of communications, similar to a book in many ways. I won a student Academy Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the same award Spike Lee won while in college.
See Chris’ Award Winning Film: Walk This Way
The prize money from that film paid for the 2 years of shooting and producing. Although I used the equipment at the community college, film and processing were expensive. “Walk This Way” is now on YouTube.
Currently I’m writing a memoir that tells the story of the plane crash, my recovery and my life for the past 25 years after the plane crash. I didn’t go into much detail in that 12 minute film about the spiritual experience I went through when I thought I was about to die. I’ve always felt an urge to tell the entire story of what I experienced in the cockpit, when I was given the choice of life or death.
Many people who have had spiritual experiences are reluctant to share those. When I’ve told other people about my spiritual experience, then they’ve felt free to tell me and others about their experiences.
My hope for writing this book is that the people who read it will feel freer to share spiritual experiences they have had in their lives.
I think that one of the ways I can help people with disabilities is to become very involved in the community and show others that people with disabilities can be involved in a community and aren’t as different as people perceive us to be. No one needs to be timid when they’re around people who are disabled or afraid to ask what’s happened.
One of the things I do is I now play with a rock band and sit on a stool, after showing up at the gig in my wheelchair. I try to be the mortar between the bricks of the community with disabilities and the community without disabilities, so we can all coexist and live normal lives together.
In 2011, I had an amazing opportunity to jam an Elvis song at the world famous Sun Studio in Memphis, TN – the birthplace of Rock and Roll. This short cover of “That’s All Right, Mama” is in the exact place (see black x on floor) where Elvis stood in 1954 to record his very first song – “That’s All Right, Mama.”
I’ve also done several workshops with war veterans to help them write about some of their experiences that they’ve never wanted to talk about as a form of therapy to help them heal. At the end of these workshops, we’ll often have public performances where they read what they’ve written. We’ve really seen some positive results from this type of interaction and therapy.
About the Author:
For the last 12 years, John E. Phillips of Vestavia, Alabama, has been a professional blogger for major companies, corporations and tourism associations throughout the nation. During his 24 years as Outdoor Editor for “The Birmingham Post-Herald” newspaper, he published more than 7,000 newspaper columns and sold more than 100,000 of his photos to newspapers, magazines and internet sites. He also hosted a radio show that was syndicated at 27 radio stations; created, wrote and sold a syndicated newspaper column that ran in 38 newspapers for more than a decade; and wrote and sold more than 30 books. Learn more at www.johninthewild.com.