This story was updated at 12:27 p.m. on Aug. 10, 2012.
Allen Rothenberg knew relatively little about Frank Schmidt outside the context of airplanes, but their shared passion brought them together to fly many times throughout the years.
Both spent decades with aviation as a focal point in their lives. Rothenberg had flown various aircraft for more than 40 years — mostly for pleasure — while Schmidt was a well-respected flight instructor and the former manager of the Davis Airport in Laytonsville.
Yet their last flight together on July 16, in what was supposed to be a routine series of flights, ended in tragedy.
Rothenberg, 83, of Bethesda had been trying to earn recertification, for which he needed a flight instructor.
“So I called Frank, and he was available. And he got killed.”
The third flight
Schmidt, 79, had planned out a series of roughly 10-minute flights at the airport, which had a runway about 25 feet wide and about 2,000 feet long.
“If you can land and fly at Davis, you can do it pretty much anywhere,” Rothenberg said.
Rothenberg recalled the numerous checklists he and Schmidt reviewed outside of the four-seater 1964 Beechcraft Musketeer, inside it, and after they started it up.
“I’d been flying for a long time, and I’ve never had an accident,” Rothenberg said. “And I attribute that never having an accident to using checklists.”
The first and second flights went according to plan, and the pilot and flight instructor continued to pay rigorous attention to the checklists.
On the third attempt, the plane reached the necessary 65 mph to 70 mph for takeoff and began lifting off the ground.
“And as it starts to lift off this time, it doesn’t go all the way up,” Rothenberg said. “Instead of going all the way up to where it did before, it bounces back down. And after that bounce, it goes up in the air again, and I’m flying it again.”
They needed more altitude.
“I don’t know what went wrong, but we obviously did not have enough power to get past those big trees at the end of the runway.”
Rothenberg recalled the last moments before they hit the trees, but does not remember the crash itself.
“I remember turning to the right. I remember Frank trying to reach for the controls at that point. And then it kinda goes black.”
Rothenberg would wake up on his back, unable to get up. He said he could hear kids screaming and shouting.
“I thought I was hurt, but I didn’t feel badly injured,” he said.
Schmidt was lying on the floor of the plane near Rothenberg, who began shaking him and calling to him, but could not get a response.
At that point, emergency personnel had reached him and pulled him out of the plane, the top of which had been pulled off, “like a can-opener almost.”
“[An emergency services worker] was trying to get a pulse on Frank, but I never heard whether she did or not,” he said.
Rothenberg had not escaped the crash unscathed. He had received a serious cut along the underside of his jaw, his lower teeth were loosened, the hand that was on the throttle was badly swollen and he had broken a couple ribs, among other injuries.
“The plane touched down on the runway and then took off,” said Dennis Stiles, a mechanic who witnessed the flight practice.
“It got to an altitude of about 200 feet and appeared to lose power; the engine ceased to run,” he said.
Stiles said the plane rolled over to the right and then turned over on its top before it flew toward the ground, then he lost sight of it.
Ralph Hicks, a senior air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, said nothing has stood out so far in the investigation of the plane, which has included consideration of its airframe, maintenance records and whether it had an adequate amount of fuel.
Investigators will continue to examine the plane’s engine “in great detail” in the next month or so, though Hicks said the engine shows “no evidence of internal failure at this point.”
The investigation should be completed in about six months, he said.
Alicia Harvey, the airport’s manager, was one of the first to run to the crash site about 425 feet from the end of the runway, although she did not see the crash itself.
“Al was speaking [to mechanic Dennis Stiles] somewhat coherently,” Harvey said. “You couldn’t really tell what his injuries were.”
Yet it was obvious, she said, that Schmidt had not made it.
Joy Rothenberg was getting ready for bed around 9 p.m. when the phone rang.
“They were saying there’s been a plane crash, ‘Are you the wife?’” she recalled.
But she also could hear her husband’s voice: “Joy, I’m here.”
Without asking for further details — she would hear those when she had to at the hospital — she left to meet him at the University of Maryland R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.
After an overnight stay in the hospital, Rothenberg has had a relatively successful recovery in the few weeks since the crash.
His son, David, 56, of Santa Monica, Calif., flew to Maryland to support his dad after the accident and recalled taking Rothenberg back to Davis Airport a couple of days after the accident to pick up his car.
“Everybody was kinda shocked to see him up and walking,” he said.
While David said he is amazed at his father’s survival, he knows of his dad’s adventurous past, including time in the Marines and the Coast Guard.
“He’s a tough old son of a bitch,” he said.
David added, however, that the damage caused by the loss of friend of more than a decade is permanent.
‘I think I have to’
Rothenberg’s yard contains a runway lamp he took from a World War II naval air station and the sign bearing his house number includes an image of the plane he used to fly the perimeter of the lower 48 states in 2004.
Rothenberg said he loves “everything” about the experience of flight.
Although she has not always understood why her husband wants to fly, Joy said she sees it as part of the “living life” personality of the man who picked her up for their first date in a Mercedes-Benz convertible and who she said has made her “more courageous.”
Although they are separated by almost 30 years, Rothenberg never has seen their age difference as a barrier.
“I don’t see him as an 83-year-old,” she said. “I don’t treat him that way either.”
Before the crash, Rothenberg had considered another big trip to celebrate his 85th birthday, perhaps visiting airports at the highest and lowest altitudes throughout the country.
Although the crash will delay any such plans, they are not yet entirely out of the question for Rothenberg.
“The reason I was flying now was because it really keeps me young, you know, it keeps me going. It gives me all kinds of stuff to be looking at and working at and growing, and I think if you don’t do that you die. And I’m 83 years old and I don’t intend to die — yet.”
Friends and families have expressed concern about his return to the skies, a return to the experience he has enjoyed for decades.
“But I think I will, I think I have to.”
Staff Writer Terri Hogan contributed to this report.