Here, Jason, 47 tells the story in his own words.
'￼I can go by myself, Dad!’ my son, Jesse, volunteered bravely.
The tiny plane bound for a remote camp site on Middle Island, Qld, only had room for three passengers at a time and two young backpackers wanted to sit next to each other.
Just 13, Jesse was an old hand and happy to fly without me. Last school holidays we’d taken the same trip, spending three days kayaking and boogie boarding down the sand dunes. Besides, it was only a 20-minute flight and I’d be following right behind in another single-engine Cessna.
‘No worries, mate – I’ll see you when we get there,’ I replied.
As the planes were pushed from the hangar, the excited female backpackers both gave Jesse their Go-Pros. Juggling one in each hand, my boy filmed them as they boarded.
Jumping in after his new mates, Jesse buckled up, and the plane took to the skies. Happy that my son was safe, I hopped in my ride, along with another couple and the pilot. A minute later, we launched into the air. It’s bloody beautiful! I thought, staring out the window. In the co-pilot seat, I had the most incredible view!
Last time, Jesse and I had even spied whales swimming below in the crystal-clear water. No telltale spouts this time, but it was still stunning! Peering into the distance, I could just make out Jesse’s plane, gliding ahead.
They’re getting ready to land, I realised, watching as the aircraft did a mid-air U-turn, then disappeared out of sight behind the rolling dunes.Glancing at my pilot, Bruce, I saw he didn’t look worried. But as the seconds ticked past and the plane didn’t reappear, his brow furrowed. Holding my breath, I waited for the flash of white to reappear. Aside from the clouds ahead, I couldn’t see a thing.
Instantly, I knew something was wrong. Palms sweating, I gripped my seat, praying that my boy was okay. As our plane geared for landing, I spotted Jesse’s plane. No! I gasped, feeling like I’d been punched in the guts. We were still 100 metres in the air, but I could clearly make out the broken aircraft in the sand. They’d crashed!
Reaching for his radio, Bruce barked our location to the emergency services. Dropping down quickly, the descent couldn’t happen fast enough. My boy needed me and I was still in the sky! Skidding to a stop, I leapt out and raced towards the wreckage. As I sprinting the 200m in record time, adrenaline pumped through my body.
It’s a mess, I thought, eyeing the smoking plane in fear. On impact, it had rolled, the body twisting upside down. Had my boy survived? ‘Jesse?!’ I screamed at the top of my lungs. At first, all I could hear was my blood throbbing in my ears. Then, a small sound escaped the carnage. ‘Dad!’ Jesse whispered hoarsely, making my heart jump with joy. ‘Hang on, mate, I’m going to get you out!’ I called back, trying to stay calm.
Gripping the door, I ripped it clean off its hinges. Still buckled into his seat up the front, Jesse was hanging upside down, as were the girls in the back. Badly hurt, but somehow still upright, the pilot was conscious. By now, help had come from a nearby camp site.
Dragging the pilot out onto the wing, we then carried him a safe distance away. Flammable aviation fuel was dripping like rain. A single spark and the entire thing would blow. Then we’d all be goners. Running back, I crawled inside to retrieve my son, but his buckle was jammed. Someone had passed me a knife, so I tore the belt apart and lifted my boy out as gently as I could.‘Is this really happening, Dad?’ he croaked. ‘I don’t know, mate,’ I replied.
We still had two people to evacuate. Getting the girls out onto the sand, they were both unconscious. Terrifyingly, one wasn’t breathing and CPR didn’t bring her back. I was distressed to realise she’d died in the crash. The poor thing, I thought, devastated for the family who’d just lost their little girl.
Choppered out to Rockhampton Hospital, Jesse had two fractured feet, and a deep cut on his left cheek. A gash just above his forehead needed 13 stitches. ‘If you haven’t got scars you haven’t lived,’ said my courageous boy a couple of days later. I later found out that the passenger who died was a 29-year-old British woman. Her 21-year-old Irish friend was critically injured but thankfully survived. It broke my heart that their holiday ended in such tragedy.
I have no doubt if it weren’t for the amazing work of the emergency services, there would have been even more devastation that day.
Almost a year on from the accident, unsurprisingly, Jesse is still petrified of getting in a plane. A few months ago, I bought us tickets for one of our favourite bands in Sydney. Nervous on the flight there, Jesse squeezed my hand so hard it turned blue. But he made it! ‘I’m proud of you, mate,’ I smiled.
The cause of the crash is still being investigated, but I believe someone was watching over us that day. Not a day goes past that I don’t thank my lucky stars.
See more in this week's issue of that's life! on sale now.