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Pilot who crashed on highway thought that was it

Cargo pilot Bob Robertson relives the death-defying crash of his twin-engine plane on the side of a Florida interstate, and tells how the moment changed his life.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

When Bob Robertson saw the news video showing him sitting alone on the side of a Florida interstate in the wreckage of a vintage twin-engine Beech aircraft, the commercial pilot decided that somebody upstairs was looking out for him.

“Clearly I’ve been getting a little help from above,” the former agnostic told TODAY co-host Meredith Vieira on Monday from a wheelchair in Healthsouth Sunrise Rehabilitation Hospital. “I’ve chosen a side.”

Getting religion isn’t the only thing that’s changed for Robertson in the 10 days since he crash-landed his plane in a patch of grass alongside Interstate 95, not far from Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport. The 34-year-old charter pilot has also proposed to his girlfriend of almost a year, Pam Mark.

He said he didn’t propose specifically because of the accident, but it factored. “The accident brought a lot of things into my life that needed to be brought into focus,” he said.

At 1:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 21, Robertson, 34, a pilot for the Monarch Air Group, took off from Fort Lauderdale with a load of clothing and shoes on a routine cargo run to the Bahamas. Shortly after takeoff, the right engine on the twin-engine plane shut down.

The plane was only about 250 feet off the ground, putting Robertson in what pilots call the “coffin corner.”

“I was slow and low; I couldn’t turn around. I was lucky; I caught a patch of green about the size of this table,” he said.

Vieira asked Robertson if he thought he was a goner.

“I absolutely did,” he said. “I think we all, as pilots, have it floating around in the back of our head that someday this is going to happen.”

At that moment, his thoughts were only about making sure that he was the only casualty. “I knew that I wasn’t going to make it, and the idea is you don’t take anybody out with you.”

He flew directly over the crowded Interstate highway, and one woman — also a pilot — later visited him to tell him she thought he was going to hit her.

“Apparently I had flown directly at her as I was coming in to make that patch of grass,” he said. “She had a lot of good things to say about how I handled the plane and how I avoided the cars.”

As he was coming down, he clipped a Department of Transportation building with a wing and the plane cartwheeled across the ground as it crash-landed, the plane disintegrating around him, spilling fuel everywhere.

Robertson was left strapped in his seat in what used to be the cockpit with nothing around him. A picture of him sitting exposed in the wreckage flew around the Internet, making him an instant celebrity.

Going homeHe lost consciousness momentarily, but awoke quickly, and video footage shows him sitting in his seat, scratching his head and checking his face for damage.

“I was in shock enough that I didn’t feel any pain, but I did know what was going on and I knew what happened,” he said. “I did have it in my mind that I was going to get up and walk out.”

Fortunately, rescue workers told him to stay where he was while firemen soaked the area down with foam and emergency medical personnel assessed his injuries, which included a compound fracture just above his left ankle, three fractures in his left forearm, and cuts to his head and right knee.

At the hospital, doctors discovered he also bruised his lungs and was on a respirator while they healed.

He expected to be released from the hospital today and faces another six to 12 weeks of recovery.

Robertson, a native of Hawaii who moved to Florida two years ago, has been flying for a decade. He said in a pre-interview with TODAY that he will fly again. It’s how he makes his living.

Ironically for a pilot, Robertson said he has a mortal fear of heights.

“It’s an oddball thing,” he said. “I can’t go above the seventh floor.”