Pilot gives thanks at airplane crash site, 40 years later

Don Rheinhart and his wife reflect on what happened 40 years ago. (Credit: KARE 11)
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BLOOMINGTON, Minn. – On the first day of March, 8 minutes past noon, Don Rheinhart stood quietly near a busy Bloomington intersection. Alone with his thoughts, he said softly, “Thank you God.”

At that exact place and time four decades earlier a violent collision had just occurred between the airplane Rheinhart was piloting and the ground on which he was now standing.    

“It has an unreal quality to it, knowing what happened here 40 years ago today,” Rheinhart reflected.

But this is less a story about the crash of a plane, than the way it altered the life of the Ohio pilot at the controls.

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“There was no luck involved,” says Rheinhart. “I was blessed.”

Blessings appeared to be in short supply that day as the plane owned by a Canadian window and door company approached the Twin Cities airport on a flight from Dayton, Ohio.

Rheinhart, the 22-year-old pilot, was transporting the company president accompanied on the trip by his wife and daughter.

Snow swirled on the ground from a late winter storm. But above, everything seemed normal until it wasn’t. 

“We were between five and seven miles from runway, when the engine quit,” Rheinhart says.

As the plane began a downward glide, Rheinhart ran through his emergency procedures. Nothing worked. The plane’s piston engine failed to restart.

“I told my passengers, ‘I’ve done everything I can, hold on tight,’” Rheinhart remembers.

The plane headed toward the intersection of France Avenue and  Old Shakopee Road, clipping the roof of an apartment house, bouncing off a parking lot, and losing one of its wings as it skidded to a halt across France Avenue.

Of the four people aboard, Rheinhart was the most seriously injured. He later learned that some of the first responders didn’t expect him to live, much less walk again.

His right wrist, and more ominously, his back, were both broken.   

“My face met the instrument panel, my front teeth - top and bottom - were smashed out.  I had to have plastic surgery to reconstruct my lips.  You can still see the scar on my forehead just a bit,” the pilot says.

Days into Rheinhart’s two-month stay at Fairview Southdale Hospital, a student nurse found herself at his bedside.  Rheinhart was face down, supported by a Stryker frame. His eyes and cheeks were still black and blue.  

“He was a prize,” laughs the nurse, who would become Rheinhart’s wife.

Don joins Pat Rheinhart in her laughter. “Somebody brought teeth to the relationship,” he chuckles, before sobering himself and adding, “This wasn't random.”

It’s a divine conclusion, but one Don Rheinhart has plenty of evidence to support.

He had crashed in Minnesota not knowing a soul. Nine months later, the paramedic who helped pull Rheinhart out of the plane was the best man at his wedding.

Rheinhart’s doctor was a groomsman, as were John Figi and his son David.  John’s wife Betty Figi had met Rheinhart in the hospital as she recuperated from her own back surgery.

“It was just, ‘Yeah, you need a place, stay with us,'” Don Rheinhart recalls.  He’d stay and recuperate with the Figi family for six months, most of that time still limited in his movements by a body cast.  

Bethany Fellowship, a religious organization, also offered Rheinhart shelter and provided a steady stream of visitors.    

“I was just adopted. I was adopted by a lot of wonderful people,” Don Rheinhart says.

Those people included Joel Wiberg, the hospital chaplain, who officiated the wedding.

“They were family,” Don Rheinhart says.

So when Don and Pat Rheinhart made plans to drive from their current home in Iowa to mark the 40th anniversary of the crash, it only made sense that Don would want to be surrounded by his Minnesota crew.

In a suite at a Bloomington hotel, they exchanged laughter and hugs.

For the first time in years Don Rheinhart embraced Betty and John Figi and all three of their children, just teenagers when Rheinhart came to stay.

Betty Figi still doesn’t give a second thought to having invited the displaced pilot to stay. “It was so, just like, this is what we were supposed to do,” she says.

Don Rheinhart stood before the group and thanked them for all they had done after his crash.

“Forty years ago, my life started again,” he told them.

Don Rheinhart survived to meet his future wife, resume his flying career, become a father and grandfather and discover his faith.

So it was fitting when Wiberg, the former hospital chaplain, arrived too.

As the Rheinharts and their guests joined hands and bowed heads, Wiberg offered a prayer.

“In all of that difficult time,” he said, “God worked together for good.”

Don Rheinhart didn't make it to the airport.  He landed where he was supposed to.