Nearly four months after a plane crashed just short of the Springbank Airport’s runway, co-pilot Megan Gallagher’s memories of the day are still spotty.
“I have like tiny little flashes of the morning before the accident and that’s all.”
A flight instructor based in Fort St. John, B.C., Megan had arranged to help train her student on a plane he had just purchased from Michael Wilton, then-president of Flightsimple Aircraft Sales.
“I was supposed to go up for a flight with Michael, and then me and my student were supposed to fly back to Fort St. John either that day or the next day.”
Not being completely familiar with all of the equipment on the recently-refurbished aircraft, Megan went up on a “checkout flight” with Wilton on April 22.
“I don’t even remember Michael or what he looked like besides seeing pictures. I don’t remember meeting him at all.”
The next thing Megan remembers was waking up in hospital in a panic, paralyzed.
“I think I panicked because I couldn’t remember the accident, and I thought I was in a crash on the West Jet flight (from Fort St. John) when they first told me I was in an accident.”
The news disrupted the Gallagher household that Friday afternoon.
“I’m sure a lot of mothers would say they would never want to hear that,” mother Angela Gallagher told Global News.
A B.C. phone number rang the Gallagher home, and Angela first thought it might be Megan, who was already in Calgary. It was Megan’s boss with the news of the late afternoon crash.
“It was horrible. The thoughts going through my head at that time,” Angela said.
“My youngest daughter came down because she heard my voice. I was just like, ‘What!?’ When she ran downstairs, I said, ‘Go tell your dad. Get your dad.’”
Angela said it was “horrible” to see Megan, intubated and bandaged in an emergency department bed.
Seeing her daughter alive after a plane crash was some relief.
“Then from that point on, after that, I was just like, ‘Okay, we’re going to get through this,’” Angela said.
At first, the hospital only allowed two visitors at a time, and the family decided Megan’s mother and fiance Kirk would get priority.
COVID-19 priorities in the intensive care unit, including pre-visit testing, masking and gowning up, made for challenging visits, her mom said.
“This is all happening and you just want to tear all this off and just hug her,” Angela said.
Megan’s family had the difficult task of trying to help her recount what happened. Having a boss who shared the first name of the man who died in a plane crash with her was especially harrowing.
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“I think that was my first pretty solid memory, just realizing and being like, ‘Wow, this is a whole new life now.’”
Glimmers of hope
Doctors told Megan she suffered a severing of her spinal cord from compression in the accident.
Initial physiotherapy consisted of getting her familiar with the controls of a wheelchair.
“(Doctors) said ‘Don’t get your hopes up on walking again. It’s very unlikely with your level of injury.’”
That kind of injury normally results in complete paralysis below a certain part of the body, with no sensations below that point. But Megan reacted when a needle was inserted into her leg for a treatment.
“I flinched and they’re like, ‘Whoa, can you feel that?’ And then I started getting movement back in my left leg in the hospital, and Kirk worked with me every day to try and help me move my legs around, get any movement back in them that I could.”
The past month has seen Megan doing regular physiotherapy designed to improve her locomotion.
“It’s crazy the stuff you don’t think about, like how walking and moving your feet and everything is so natural until you can do it. And then now I have to think about every single muscle that I need to use to work my legs again,” Megan said.
Her physiotherapists estimate her trajectory at being able to walk with ankle braces, with the possibility of eventually removing the supports.
Recently, Megan started working on taking backward steps. Her progress fuels her work ethic.
“The first time they stood me up, even just standing, I was like, ‘Wow, this is awesome.’”
Step by step
Her mother said Megan has always been a “big planner,” always planning the next steps in her life.
“Now she says, ‘Well, okay, I can’t be a big planner. I can’t plan my future like I was before because obviously now these things have happened. But if I planned little things…’” Angela said. “So now it’s little things we’re planning.”
One of those little steps was being flown by a friend in Weyburn, Sask.
“It was nice to just be up on a plane again,” Megan said. “I was in a plane almost every day for a year before that.
“It’s a big part of my life and I miss it a lot.”
The future of Megan as a pilot-for-hire is cloudy right now and will depend on her recovery. But getting back in the cockpit – even as a hobbyist – is one of her goals.
“It’s not even going to be just as simple as if I can walk again,” Megan said of the steps to return to her career. “Having your medical license to be a commercial pilot can be pretty (challenging). They really want to make sure that you’re very fit if you’re flying tons of people around.
“So that might be the challenging part is getting approved again to be a pilot.”
Road to recovery
The Transportation Safety Board is investigating the accident.
Megan received a call from TSB while in hospital, but her lost memory didn’t help officials.
She thinks the accident could have been caused by a sudden change in the weather, but she’s unsure.
“I’m hoping that I’ll get more answers when they finish their report. But it’s hard to know what they’d actually be able to tell what caused the accident,” she said.
“I don’t really know what happened the day of.”
Megan is grateful for the help of strangers who witnessed the accident.
“They didn’t know anything about me. They just didn’t even think about it – they just drove to this plane and pulled me out.”
“I feel very lucky.”
A lot of people have told Angela that Megan’s survival was a “miracle.”
“Yes, it is a miracle. You have someone that drops that far from the sky, survives and is now here breathing, living and is on her road to recovery with going to walk again,” Angela said.
“The sheer strength of my daughter is unbelievable.”
That road to recovery will be taken one step at a time for Megan.
“My goal, since pretty early on, was walking again,” she said. “I would say I’m a pretty stubborn person and I have to at least try, right?”
–with files from Sarah Offin, Global News