Back where he belongs

ARLINGTON — Steve Smith didn’t know if he’d ever walk again, let alone fly.

The Whidbey Island pilot who works out of the Arlington airport barely survived when his helicopter plummeted 200 feet to the ground on Jan. 20, 2002.

The crash tore an artery near his heart, broke his back and fractured every rib on his left side. It broke his sternum in three places, injured his spine and shattered his elbow.

The pilot, who had spent a decade flying seriously injured people to the hospital, lay unconscious for 12 days at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

Smith says it’s a miracle he’s alive. And it’s another miracle that he’s able to fly again.

Sunday was his first day back on the job as an emergency medical pilot with Airlift Northwest. Last week, he completed three days of training flights after getting clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration.

"After a couple of flights, I could feel the tension drain out of me. I got my confidence, and I remembered it being a fun job," he said. "I felt like king of the air. I was the happiest guy on earth."

Smith’s first training flight was on his 57th birthday, and he said he got choked up when he pulled on his flight suit.

"It was like I was reborn," he said. "Life took on a whole new meaning."

Smith said he has no memory of the crash that nearly claimed his life. It happened near Baring, northwest of Skykomish, when the engine quit on what Smith expected would be a routine return flight to Arlington.

Smith was the only one on board. The injured skier he had been sent to pick up had been taken to the hospital by ambulance.

Smith was pulled from the damaged helicopter by aid crews and taken to Gold Bar, where he was treated by medics from Monroe. He was then whisked by another helicopter to Harborview.

Smith underwent nine surgeries (most on his left arm), spent two months in the hospital and endured more than a year of intensive physical therapy.

"It was quite a year. If the saying ‘no pain, no gain’ ever was true, this was it," he said.

The treatment intensified in January, when Smith began a five-hour-a-day regimen that focused on preparing him to return to work.

"It reminded me of boot camp," said Smith, who learned to fly in the Marine Corps and survived his helicopter getting shot down during the Vietnam War.

His physical therapy worked. However, Smith had some doubts about returning to the skies.

"I was uptight and nervous during every one of my training flights, but I could do everything," said Smith, who underwent a battery of physical and mental tests before the FAA allowed him back in the cockpit.

Airlift Northwest says they’re glad to have Smith back. He returned to his old job of lead pilot at the company’s Arlington station.

"Having him back after suffering what he’s gone through is just amazing to us," flight nurse Sherri Kruzner-Rowe said. "He had no problems getting back in the air again. We always feel safe in his arms when he’s flying."

Smith and his family said they’re grateful for everyone who has cared for him, from his doctors at Harborview to Skykomish Fire Chief George Wahl, who pulled Smith out of his crumpled chopper.

"He ran up to a smoking helicopter that could have exploded. If he hadn’t done that, I would have died," Smith said. "Everybody just did incredible, incredible feats."

The pilot said his injuries gave him more empathy for the people he flies to the hospital.

"When we drop off patients now, I know where they’re going and what they’ve got ahead of them," he said. "My heart just goes out to them."

Reporter Katherine Schiffner: 425-339-3436 or

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