Friday, May 6, 2005 | 11:28 a.m.
The man who grabbed control of a small aircraft after the pilot suffered a fatal heart attack in mid-flight Thursday said today all he could think about was finding a way to land the plane and get home to his family.
"My family was the only thing on my mind," said Gerry Garapich, 60, a Henderson architect whose only previous piloting experience was glider lessons he took 25 years ago.
"I thought about making it home to my wife and son and for Bob to make it home to his wife and two girls."
While Garapich operated the stick, fellow passenger Bob Powelson, also not a pilot, operated the landing gear controls and flaps, as they crash-landed a small turbo-prop airplane at North Las Vegas Airport. The pilot and their longtime friend, 49-year-old Douglas R. Reichardt, suffered a heart attack after they took off from the airport.
Reichardt, co-owner of El Jefe's Mexican Restaurant & Cantina in Henderson, later died at University Medical Center where all three were taken.
Garapich, the architect for El Jefe, suffered two cracked vertebrae, while Powelson, Reichardt's business partner, needed 17 stitches above the eyes. Both were recovering at UMC today. Garapich talked to the Sun by phone from his hospital bed this morning.
The three were en route from North Las Vegas Airport to San Diego to check on some property on which to build another restaurant. When Reichardt began to feel ill when they were near Boulder City, he radioed the tower to say he was returning.
Reichardt's 1982 Gulfstream Turbo-Prop approached the airport after air traffic controllers at McCarran International Airport directed them in.
"When Doug radioed the tower to come in, I looked over and he did not look well at all," said Garapich, who was in the seat next to the pilot, whom he had known for 12 years.
"He kind of collapsed, and we got him off the stick. He was nonresponsive."
Neither man knew how to operate the radio but could hear the control tower personnel talk about the troubled plane. One flight controller told whoever might be listening on the plane to use whichever runway they wanted.
"Yes, I was scared to start with, but I still had another passenger and myself to think about. But it was all done on instinct," Garapich said.
"I could see the runway. I remembered when we took off the wind was coming in from the east. I circled but came in too high first time so I decided to take a couple of passes to get a feel for the plane. I wanted to keep the air speed up but I knew I was going to crash-land it."
While Garapich tried to bring the plane down, Powelson reached over him to lower the landing gear and adjust the flaps.
"All I remember is we came down kind of hard," said Garapich, who hopes to be released after he is fitted for a back brace. He said he has been told he is expected to fully recover.
Garapich said Powelson's injuries were the result of him having to leave his seat to do his part to safely land the craft. Garapich credited Powelson's role as being just as vital as his in their surviving the crash.
"I'm not a hero," Garapich said. "People risk their lives every day -- firefighters, police. The people here in UMC trauma were wonderful -- they are the heroes. I just got lucky."
As Garapich was interviewed, friends were visiting him, including employees of the restaurant.
Asked if he would fly again in a small plane, Garapich said, "I probably would."
He said that Reichardt, a father of three, loved to fly his plane.
"It was his passion," Garapich said. "He took it to Costa Rica, the Bahamas. He loved to go places."
FAA spokesman Don Walker said the controllers gave instructions over the radio and "helped get (the passenger) oriented and then told him he was cleared to land on any runway."
The plane circled the North Las Vegas Airport three times before finally skidding to a stop on its belly in a patch of dirt adjacent to the runway, North Las Vegas Fire Capt. Jay Wittwer said.
Emergency crews had to remove Reichardt from the airplane and immediately took him to the hospital.
"You can say it was a successful landing -- both of the men walked away from it. One had a cut on his head," Wittwer said.
Walker said the three men had left the airport in North Las Vegas about 8:30 a.m. Thursday en route to San Diego. They had made contact with air traffic controllers in Los Angeles when suddenly the pilot indicated he needed to turn around.
"He didn't say why," Walker said. "We gave him the authority to turn back."
Wittwer said the passenger had no contact with the tower at the airport. Airport officials cleared all aircraft from the runways to give the man room to land the airplane.
"He had made up to three passes on the runway. He was wobbly a little -- he was probably trying to figure out how he was going to land," Wittwer said. "He must have known he was coming in too low because he pulled up. He just missed the apartments to the north and came to a stop within 20 feet of the fence.
"It had to be quite an experience."
Pieces of the aircraft's landing gear and underbelly could be seen scattered around the infield at the airport after the 9:14 a.m. landing about 100 feet short of the runway.
Walker said the FAA still was investigating.
According to FAA records, Reichardt had a first class medical rating and had his last physical in October 2004. There was no record of any mechanical problems with the plane.