Sun Prairie resident Ben West is no stranger to stressful situations.
He’s a fulltime member of the National Guard and a commercial pilot with over 20 years of experience in the military and fifteen as a pilot. So when a plane crashed at an Experimental Aircraft Association’s AirVenture show in Oshkosh July 22, West didn’t think twice about jumping to action.
West was at Wittman Regional Airport coordinating pyrotechnics for the “Tora Tora Tora” airshow, which commemorates the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. His cousin, Don Dragoo, and he were getting supplies ready -- West was “waist-deep in the dynamite bunker.” Then, they heard a crash and saw smoke coming from close by.
As others ran to the scene, West jumped into his truck and Dragoo got in the passenger seat. They were the first to arrive. A small plane had hit the runway and skidded into the grass.
The right wing had torn off and the left wing on fire.
One passenger slumped out of the plane’s open door. Dragoo pulled the man, the pilot’s father, out of the plane.
The pilot was able to leave on his own, and with a push from West so did the other passengers, except for the unconscious co-pilot. It was a precarious situation.
“The left wing is draining fuel and it’s burning, but it’s still attached,” West said. “So I thought to myself, ‘I can’t let him get burned.”
West climbed into the passenger’s seat, wary of the flames. When he tried to drag the co-pilot out of the plane, West found he was pinned in place by his feet. He told the man to push.
Dragoo watched from the side.
“He was pinned inside the seat and not very responsive,” Dragoo said. “My cousin was trying to get him to respond, trying to pull him free of the seat.”
And while this happened, the plane was filling up with smoke. West said he knew the odds of the fire spreading to the whole plane were fairly high, and he thought about his wife and three sons, worried that he would never see them again.
Though he was nervous, West said he felt “surprisingly at peace.”
Eventually, realizing he would not be able to pull the co-pilot out, West reluctantly left the plane. He grabbed a fire extinguisher right as the emergency responders showed up.
Dragoo said the firefighters sprayed foam, which initially didn’t diminish the flames. Soon, though, they were able to extinguish the wing.
“It seemed like forever, but I’m sure it was only a couple minutes,” Dragoo said.
Paramedics cut open the side of the plane to access the co-pilot and transported the accident victims to the hospital via ambulance, with one transported by air.
West said he owes part of his fast response to his military training.
“You’re not a static observer,” he said. “You’re actively involved in protecting people.”
He also said his reaction also came from his own values.
“On a personal side as a Christian, I feel a duty to protect people too,” he said. “My natural instinct is to get involved and to help.”
He also gives credit to others on the scene, including Dragoo and his military friend Mike Bracki, who rushed to the accident and immediately started treating the passengers for shock. West said he is “fortunate to be around doers.”
Dick Knapinski, spokesperson for the EAA in Oshkosh, said passengers were all released from the hospital within days.
The victims were pilot Kenneth S. Kaminski, 46, from Benton Harbor, Mich.; his father Gerald T. Kaminski, 71, of Palos Hills, Ill.; Margaret C. Laing, 30, of Michigan; Nathan Gargano, 26, of Michigan; and Neil Dill, 56, from Indianhead Park, Ill., according to Knapinski.
Dill was in critical condition when he was admitted.
Knapinski said fair show crashes do not happen often. “It’s a pretty rare occurrence,” he said.
According to Knapinski, the National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the cause of the crash.