BELFAST, Maine — The fading scars that tell the story of the frightening airplane crash at sea Eva Murray survived 4½ years ago can’t mask the gleam in her eyes when she talks about learning how to fly.
The 51-year-old writer, baker and emergency medical technician from Matinicus Island began taking flying lessons three years ago.
It started as a “mental health exercise,” Murray said, intended to calm a stomach that churned every time she had to fly again. But the lessons have become something more elemental for her.
“There was a lot of sense of, ‘I’d better get a grip here or I’m going to get a bleeding ulcer,’” she said recently. “I just wanted flying to go back to being fun, and that’s exactly what happened — slowly and at no small expense. Now, I’m a gung-ho hobbyist.”
In July 2011, when a Penobscot Island Air single-engine Cessna 206 lost power and ditched in the Atlantic Ocean shortly after taking off from Matinicus, no one could have predicted that joy of flying lay in Murray’s future.
On that day, Murray hit the windshield of the small plane and may have blacked out for a few moments. When she came to, she was underwater in the downed plane and could not see. She groped her way to the pilot’s side to get out, bleeding profusely from the deep gashes on her face. She was the last of the three passengers to surface, and she took so long to do it that pilot Robert Hoffman had gone back underwater to look for her.
The four survivors, all injured, clung to a floating freight pod in the frigid water and hoped that their plight would soon be noticed by someone. The two other passengers, Abbie Read of Appleton and Karen Ford of Waterville, suffered serious injuries in the crash, which the National Transportation Safety Board determined likely was caused by the pilot’s improper fuel management.
“I’ve become extremely interested in the psychology of resilience,” Murray said recently, recalling the accident. “I went into 100 percent robot mode. No lights, no angels. My brain was just, ‘What do I have to do this second?’ … It wasn’t about fear, about cold, about other injury. It was about what do I have to do next.”
What came next was getting saved. The plane’s emergency system sent a signal to a satellite, and Penobscot Island Air owner Kevin Waters realized something was wrong. He sent another pilot to scout for the Cessna, and that pilot spotted the survivors in the sea and called for help.
Within minutes, the Matinicus fishing fleet had roared out of the harbor toward the crash site, and the survivors were hauled out of the water about 30 to 40 minutes after they had gone in.
“Between the adrenalin and the cold and the head injury, as soon as I got into the boat, I passed out asleep,” Murray recalled. “They took the boat to the wharf and put me in a freight basket and hauled me up. It was all hands on deck. The whole community turned out. Everybody came running. It’s a back country thing.”
Murray and each of the other survivors of the plane crash had to get right back in an airplane to get to the mainland and medical help.
“I was not lucid enough to be afraid of getting back into the airplane,” Murray said. “I was not processing that being in an airplane was scary.”
But later, the no-nonsense islander found that being an airplane passenger, once so easy for her, became difficult. Because she lives on an island 22 miles out to sea, avoiding airplanes entirely was never going to be an option. Penobscot Island Air pilots deliver the island’s mail, groceries and freight. There is no daily ferry service, and the hardworking planes also take people back and forth from the mainland to Matinicus.
“I never failed to get on the airplane when there was need to. I never once didn’t,” she said. “But when the sound of the engine changed, I was hypervigilant. I needed to learn how to fly so I wouldn’t have that flinch reaction.”
A few months after the Cessna went in the Atlantic, another airplane crash happened on Matinicus. However, this one was fatal.
Penobscot Island Air pilot Don Campbell had been about to land on the island, carrying a load of groceries, when he crashed his Cessna 207 into the woods next to the airstrip. Murray went to his funeral and made a decision: She needed to go to ground school to try to alleviate her anxiety.
“How does the plane stay up in the air?” she said. “It’s academically and technically interesting. And also, if you’re going to trust it, you need to understand it, so you know it’s not a magic trick. Understanding the science is what you need to feel you’re not somehow suspending common sense.”
Murray began taking flying lessons with Sandy Reynolds of the Belfast-based Maine Scenic Airways Flight School. She said she wasn’t the quickest student or the most naturally gifted, but she never gave up.
“After two decades of flying back and forth as a passenger, I was surprised at how much I still had to learn,” she said. “Now, I feel like a 16-year-old. Oh yeah, it’s fun.”
Waters said he is impressed by Murray’s hard work and determination to learn how to fly.
“I couldn’t be more proud of her. She’s such a great person and a great spirit and an inspiration, as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “She’s overcome a lot. It’s taken a lot of fortitude and guts to accomplish what she has accomplished.”
Murray is close to getting her private pilot’s license. She doesn’t have any expectations of using the license practically and doesn’t plan to get her own airplane. But still, she’s enjoying it.
“I have 105 hours, and I still feel like a beginner. I feel very humble about this,” Murray said.
In June 2015, she went on her first solo cross-country trip, flying to Brunswick Naval Air Station on a clear, blue-sky day.
“It was calm and beautiful,” she said. “I thought, ‘So this is why people take this up as a hobby. This is why it’s a recreational activity, and not a thing you make yourself do.’”