ActivePaper Archive Recovered pilot to get Courage award - Chattanooga, 9/18/2005

Recovered pilot to get Courage award


Matt Warmerdam

Contributed photo

Investigators examine the Atlantic Southeast Airlines aircraft that crashed Aug, 21, 1995, near Carrollton, Ga.

When he was lying in bed at Erlanger hospital, 42 percent of his body burned, six of his fingers partially amputated, Matt Warmerdam said he never thought of giving up his career as a pilot. He had been the first officer on Atlantic Southeast Airlines Flight 529, which had crashed in a hay field near Carrollton, Ga., on Aug. 21, 1995, after its left-engine leftengine propeller broke. Eight of 29 people aboard died. Next weekend, Mr. Warmerdam, who returned to the air in 2002, is scheduled to receive a Patients of Courage award from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons at its annual convention in Chicago. Dr. Louis Carter, an Erlanger surgeon who treated Mr. Warmerdam, said he never thought the then-28-year-old would return to the air. "I thought that because he was a big, strong guy that he would live, without any problem, probbut never fly again," the now retired staff member of the Plastic Surgery Group/Hayes Hand Center said. "I thought it was not even a possibility because of his severe burns." Dr. Carter, who did the majority of skin grafts and amputations on Mr. Warmerdam, nominated him for the award. "(He) has been a great inspiration to me, and he has shown and taught me many things," he said. The first officer and two others on the plane, which caught fire shortly after the crash, were brought to Chattanooga by a Life Force helicopter. One of those transported by Life Force, Lucille Burton, aunt of Erlanger’s then-chief executive officer, Skip Reeder, was pronounced dead on arrival at Erlanger. The other, Jennifer Grunbeck of Maine, suffered burns over 95 percent of her body but survived. Mr. Warmerdam said he still keeps up with Ms. Grunbeck and said she is "doing great." He credited Dr. Carter and the other members of the hospital’s burn unit staff with saving his life. Mr. Warmerdam had burns over his entire back and on his chest, face, back of his neck, left arm, fingers, knees and part of his left leg. "His back was burned down into the muscle," Dr. Carter said. "I remember to this day how deep it was. (His burns) required almost daily surgery." Mr. Warmerdam was in Erlanger for five months and in Siskin Hospital for Physical Rehabilitation for two more. He spent about five years of rehabilitation in his native California, then went through a two-year process twoyear to become medically qualified to fly again. He attributes his recovery, which included 38 operations, "mostly to being stubborn. I wanted to be a pilot since I was very, very young — from 6 years old on. When I finally began making a living at it, it was a nice experience. A twist of fate had taken that away, and I didn’t like that." To return to flight after rehabilitation, he had to stop taking the few pain medications he still was prescribed and have a thorough medical work-up while dealing with continuous paperwork from the Federal Aviation Administration. At the same time, Mr. Warmerdam said, he had to test his ability to function with his finger amputations — "how to use my hands, how to twist dials and how to pull switches" — through flight training. "I got where I could do everything and get through it with dexterity," he said. A key to Mr. Warmerdam’s recovery was his wife, Amy, Dr. Carter said. Constantly supportive and "positive in every way," she was insistent in the first weeks after the crash that doctors not amputate his hand. "I know Matt, and he will want to fly again," Dr. Carter remembered Mrs. Warmerdam saying, "so you need to do everything you can to save his left hand." Dr. Carter said the burn team members "tried to be conservative. We probably tried to save too much." Mr. Warmerdam said ASA didn’t have to hold his spot with the airline, but did. Now "at the top of the food chain" among first officers, he flies to Canada, Mexico and the Bahamas. Because the airline is based in Atlanta and Mr. Warmerdam has no sweat glands in his grafted skin, he flies only between November and the end of May, avoiding the hot Southeast in the summer. Mr. Warmerdam said he regrets that lives were lost in the 1995 crash, but he wouldn’t change what happened to him in the process. "I’m glad it was me that it happened to," Mr. Warmerdam said. "So many good things came out of it. I’ve learned so much. I’m a better person for it." E-mail Clint Cooper at

Matt Warmerdam was burned in a 1995 crash and was treated at Erlanger hospital.

"I wanted to be a pilot "a since I was very, very young ... a twist of fate had taken that away, and I didn’t like that." — Matt Warmerdam