Crash can’t deter dreams of former county man
David Hegedus was 22 years old when he was grounded in the summer of 1996.
It was a less-than-ideal situation for the Lakewood man and Southwestern Central School graduate who found himself stuck at home with his parents and unable to go out.
To make matters worse, Hegedus couldn’t work while he had student loans hanging over his head and far more costly expenses looming.
He had nowhere to go but up, though perhaps “back up” would be more appropriate.
“You fall off a horse, you gotta get back on,” said the 49-year-old Hegedus who, after surviving a near-fatal plane crash 27 years ago, recently was awarded the position of captain at American Airlines to cement his Hollywoodesque comeback.
“I got to my final destination a little bit later than I wanted but, nonetheless, I’m here,” the Chautauqua County native said by phone from North Carolina.
A BRUSH WITH DEATH
There’s not much Hegedus remembers from the morning of Aug. 10, 1996. He and a 20-year-old student pilot had taken off from Moorhead Airport in nearby North East Township inside a Cessna 150F, a plane commonly used for training.
“I remember a few things, like taking off,” Hegedus recalled of the flight, which lasted about a half-hour before the plane the two were in plunged into a field in Greenfield Township, located about 5 miles west of Findley Lake.
Hegedus, who had just recently began training other would-be pilots, was transported by helicopter to an Erie, Pa., hospital. His injuries were academic — a gaping head wound, a sliced right leg, a damaged kidney, broken teeth, a brain contusion and a shattered vertebrate near the base of his spine.
The 20-year-old student pilot also suffered critical injuries.
In an interview with The Post-Journal three months after the accident, Hegedus recalled the near-fatal crash.
“The last thing we can remember is taking off, because I was critiquing him,” he said.
According to the accident report from the National Transportation Safety Board, the Cessna passed over power lines suspended about 40 feet above the ground and, after the initial point of impact, traveled an additional 60 feet. The plane came to rest upside down, with a portion of the landing gear embedded in the cockpit.
In its report, the NTSB cited the plane’s loss of engine power for “undetermined reasons” as the probable cause of the accident.
After a lengthy stay in the hospital, Hegedus returned home to Lakewood in late October 1996. His mother, Irene, was there to welcome him.
“He hates to lose,” she told the newspaper of her son’s desire to get back in the air. “One day I said, ‘David, second place isn’t so bad.’ He said, ‘Yes it is; it’s the first-place loser.'”
Hegedus’ dream of becoming a pilot took flight after attending space camp as a kid through the Chautauqua Region Community Foundation. He later received two scholarships to attend Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., where he later obtained a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical science.
“When it’s crystal clear and you look out at that altitude, you have a thousand miles of visibility,” he said. “It’s absolutely amazing. … There’s no other job like it. We got the best office in the world.”
Despite his close brush with death so soon after graduating college, Hegedus was eager to get back into the pilot seat.
“In the hospital people would ask me, ‘You want to fly again?’ I said, ‘I can’t wait to fly again.’ They think I’m crazy,” he said in November 1996. “The way I look at it, it’s the best therapy.”
Getting airborne again, however, required a lot of legwork.
It took almost two years for Hegedus to find gainful employment to earn a living and afford health insurance. By that point, he had racked up thousands of dollars in medical bills and lawyers fees.
Because Hegedus required the use of a brace for his injured leg, he also had to secure multiple medical waivers from the Federal Aviation Administration before he could fly again.
As he puts it, the 1990s were not kind to his career trajectory, but he kept at it.
“Plans change from one day to another,” he said. “What you have planned this week could be different for next week. It’s like, get your dice out and throw them up against the wall. The only thing that is constant in the world is change. Everything is always changing. You just got to roll with it.”
Eventually, Hegedus got his foot back into the industry. He was hired at Dunkirk and Jamestown Aviation, and worked his way up to assistant chief flight instructor in Jamestown.
In December 2003, a friend at Air Midwest helped him get a job at the carrier. By the following March, he was hired at Mesa Airline, part of Air Midwest, where he flew from 2004 to 2008.
He stayed with Mesa Airline after Air Midwest shuttered, flying a variety of regional aircraft.
However, his big break came in November 2021 when he was hired as a first officer at American Airlines. There, he was trained on the Boeing 737, a narrow-body aircraft.
A DREAM FULFILLED
Going from captain at a regional airline to first officer at American meant taking a small pay cut at first. But he didn’t hesitate to describe the perks of working for a major U.S. airline — especially one that got him one step closer to fulfilling his lifelong dream.
“The pay is better. The benefits are better. The schedules are better. The quality of life is better. The planes are bigger. And the planes are better,” Hegedus said. “You have to look at the whole painting, not just the one or two colors.”
He added, “American has been great. I’ve never been treated like this by an employer before.”
While a first officer, Hegedus applied for and was approved to be based in Charlotte, N.C., which he said dramatically cut down his commute to and from work. He lives with his wife, Kimberly, in Harrisburg, N.C., which he described as a “nice little sleepy town.”
His lifelong goal of becoming captain became reality this year. He was scheduled to begin captain training in December, but a broken shin has delayed the start of his dream job by a couple of months.
He acknowledged his journey to being awarded captain this year has been winding. Despite the plane crash, the financial instability that followed, the struggle to get back into the industry, and the numerous rejections from airlines when applying for jobs, he never strayed too far from his dream career.
“I had to get back into it, you know. It’s what I am. It’s who I am,” he said. “Between the good and the bad, I love the job. There’s nowhere else you can go and be launching down the runway at 150 mph and coming in landing at 170 mph with takeoff weight of 160,000 pounds. There’s just nothing like landing an airplane with 175 people behind you. … It’s just a rush. It truly is.”