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Man who ran flight school that trained terrorists survives helicopter crash into Caloosahatchee

Saturday, January 25, 2003


Trapped in a helicopter filled with water, the door up against the bottom of the river and a safety belt that wouldn't budge, Rudi Dekkers started to panic.

On the coldest day of the year in Southwest Florida on Friday, Dekkers crashed his 1972 FH-1100 helicopter into an ice-cold Caloosahatchee River.

The 46-year-old native from Holland, whose Huffman Aviation flight school made national headlines when it was discovered it trained two Sept. 11 terrorists, nearly drowned trying to escape his sunken aircraft. But a friend and fellow chopper pilot pulled the freezing Dekkers from the river, dragging him to shore as he clung with both hands to the chopper's skids.

Rudi Dekkers

"I really thought I was going to die today," said the Bonita Springs resident, hours after surviving an episode unmatched by any reality TV show.

The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the crash.

Friday started much like any other day for Dekkers.

He left his Barefoot Beach home at 6:28 a.m. as the sun was beginning to rise and the temperature registered 33 degrees. He headed north to Southwest Florida International Airport to fly his helicopter to Huffman Aviation in Venice.

Before leaving the airport, he and friend Tony Douangdara, 35, also a chopper pilot, shared a cup of coffee. Douangdara was headed to Venice in the WINK-TV helicopter to pick up a reporter. He asked Dekkers if he would join him tonight on a chopper job flying over crops to keep them from freezing and Dekkers agreed.

The two pilots left the Fort Myers airport five minutes apart. Douangdara took off separately at 7:10 a.m. and Dekkers followed.

But by the time Dekkers was in the air, Douangdara was clearing Page Field. Dekkers asked Page Field to give Douangdara a message to wait up, he wanted to fly together.

"It's so boring. I do it every day. It's fun to ride side by side," Dekkers said, adding that he seldom gets a chance to do so.

But 10 minutes after takeoff, something went terribly wrong. Dekkers' engine sputtered and quit.

"I lost speed and noticed immediately that I was losing RPMs in the blade. I realized I was above water and could not make a safe landing," he said.

He was over the middle of the Caloosahatchee River just west of the Edison Bridge.

When a helicopter engine quits you go straight down, he said. "And you only have a couple of seconds to think what to do."

He radioed Douangdara and told him he was going down.

Then he unbuckled his safety belt but left on his shoulder harness. He opened the right door, thinking it would be easier to get out after the crash. He figured the impact would throw him through the front windshield if he took off his shoulder harness.

But the plane hit the water at 40 mph to 50 mph, shattering the front windshield and instantly filling it with water. The force of the impact flipped the helicopter onto its right side — covering the escape route.

"In one or two seconds the plane was upside down and I was facing the bottom of the river," Dekkers said.

Visibility was zero.

"It was pitch black," Dekkers said.

He was wearing a bulky sweater and jacket, and couldn't get out of the shoulder harness. He struggled for four or five seconds, gulped down water and began to panic.

"I thought this was it. I thought about my wife and kids and thought they were going to have to do it without me," he said.

Then a thought came to him.

"Get out of the jacket," he said.

He slipped out of the jacket and felt his way to the right side of the plane. The door had jammed forward, leaving a clear escape route but the hole faced the bottom.

Dekkers put his left leg underneath the 2,000-pound aircraft and pried it upward, escaping underwater beneath it.

"I had to push away from ground. I used my weight as leverage and made an opening between it and the bottom of the river," he said.

He swam to the surface of the possibly 10-foot deep water. By then the chopper had flipped upside down completely. Only the skids were showing.

Douangdara had circled around, and as Dekkers got to the top of the skids, Douangdara was overhead. Dekkers waved that he was OK.

But Douangdara kept coming closer and Dekkers realized he was offering to help. Winds were 20 knots and waves were choppy, but Douangdara took the chopper dangerously low to the water for Dekkers to grab hold.

He lifted Dekkers about 20 feet high and took him to the south side of the river, to the back yard of a newly built but-not-yet occupied home that had an uncaged pool.

Dekkers laid on the side of grass for a few seconds, exhausted, and waved to Douangdara that he was all right. Then he hoisted himself up to get into the pool.

The pool water was around 55 degrees and Dekkers said it felt warm.

Bruised, and battered from the impact, freezing from the cold and wet, Dekkers decided he needed to get help quick.

He scaled a fence to get to the other side of the street, cutting his finger, then waved down a driver who was about to take his child to school. Dekkers told the man he had just crashed into the river and asked if he would call an ambulance, police or take him to the hospital.

But the man said he had to take his child to school. Another neighbor walking a dog offered to take him, and about that time the ambulance arrived.

It took emergency worker 10 minutes of warming Dekkers with thermal blankets before the lowest temperature on the ear-thermometer registered his 91.8 degrees, Dekkers said.

Doctors at Lee Memorial Hospital told Dekkers that the weight-loss and exercise program he has been on for the past year is what saved him.

Dekkers said his chopper, which was uninsured, was valued at $100,000.

The crash was another incident in a string of troubles that have plagued Dekkers since he arrived in the United States 10 years ago Friday.

And his luck had gotten worse since Huffman Aviation unwittingly trained terrorists Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi to fly. Dekkers closed his Naples business Ambassador Airlines in December 2001 after falling on financial hard times. Huffman Aviation flight school wasn't making any money either, he said.

The day before the chopper crash, The Associated Press reported Dekkers was about to be arrested by the State Attorney's Office on felony fraud charges for selling a building without paying back a promissory note-holder $300,000. Dekkers has denied wrongdoing and provided documents Friday showing the complainant no longer wants to pursue the matter.

Dekkers says his luck changed Friday.

"This is a blessed day," he said, his voice cracking with emotion. "I don't have to go to court, I am still alive and I sold my business."

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