Nearly five months after he almost died in a plane crash on San Juan Island, author Richard Bach has returned to what he knows best — the inspirational tale of Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
The 76-year-old author and longtime pilot is recovering at his Orcas Island home after spending four months in a Seattle hospital with massive brain, chest and spine injuries. Bach says his recovery includes rediscovering simple pleasures, like walking and talking with ease and carving the Christmas turkey.
He credits ex-wife Sabryna Bach with helping ease the difficult time. It was her support, coupled with his brush with death, that prompted Bach to get back to the famous novella that made him one of the world’s most famous authors more than 40 years ago.
Published in 1970, “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” told, in three parts, the story of a seagull who refused to conform and longed for a life beyond that of his flock. The book was an international best-seller that inspired legions of fans and a film with a soundtrack by Neil Diamond.
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“When it was written there were four parts of the book,” said Bach, explaining the never-completed fourth part.
But Bach recently finished the fourth section of “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” and mailed it off to his publisher a few weeks ago. Bach’s family says he had written the fourth section when he completed the book, but what he went through inspired him to go through a final edit, make some changes and send it off to his publisher.
In the new section, the flock struggles to find meaning. They first worship Jonathan, then, as the years pass, he’s written off as a myth. But, eventually, a message of hope comes though when Jonathan returns.
“He’s just there to make things a little more at ease … like Sabryna,” Bach said.
Sabryna Bach, 42, shies away from any attention. She says Bach’s work on the book has given him the confidence to get his recovery completely on track.
“He saw that his intellect was untouched [by the crash],” she said. “After that he did a 180.”
Airlifted to hospital
On Aug. 31, Bach was piloting a single-engine Easton SeaRey amphibian plane to visit a friend when the aircraft clipped power lines about three miles west of Friday Harbor Airport and flipped. Medics were at the crash site within minutes and an Airlift Northwest helicopter whisked Bach away to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the crash.
Bach remained in a coma for more than a week, according to Harborview physicians and his family.
Brain injuries affected his ability to walk, speak and perform the most basic of tasks. Until last month, Bach lived between the hospital and a nearby recovery center. By his side the entire time was Sabryna.
Bach attributes his survival to Airlift Northwest, the medical-transport service that flew him to Harborview.
Dr. Ron Maier, surgeon-in-chief at Harborview, agrees. He said had it not been for Airlift Northwest, Bach would not have made it to the hospital’s trauma center within a critical time period.
“A traditional concept has become established in trauma: It’s called the golden hour. It just emphasizes the quicker the people [with brain injures] get to definitive care they have a better chance of surviving,” Maier said.
Bach is so grateful that he helped establish a fund, called “Gift of Wings,” to help Harborview and Airlift Northwest.
Chris Martin, executive director of Airlift Northwest, said the emergency helicopter reached the injured Bach after a 12-minute flight from Bellingham, one of the chopper’s hubs. The flight to Harborview took 18 minutes, she said.
On board, Bach was treated by critical-care nurses.
“He was getting the care he would be getting in the intensive-care unit as we were flying from point A to point B,” Martin said. “For Richard, everything worked the way it should have. He crashed, someone saw it happen, they called 911, medics responded, we responded, we got him stabilized as the best we could and got him there.”
Upon landing at Harborview, Bach was rushed into emergency treatment. Maier was among the first to encounter the author at the hospital.
Maier says he initially only knew the injured man was a plane-crash victim suffering from a severe brain, chest and spine injuries.
“Along with the significance of those injuries, he developed respiratory failure. He had to be on a ventilator. Because of his brain injury he was essentially comatose,” Maier said.
It wasn’t until hours later that Maier became aware that his patient had penned an international best-seller.
Maier said injury to the brain injury was a definite concern.
“The only question is how much disability. Whether there will be a disability on life’s daily activities. That’s still yet to be determine,” Maier said.
Flying a joy
The joy of flight has played a major role in Bach’s life and work.
The author served in the Air Force, then later in the New Jersey Air National Guard. He worked a variety of jobs, including technical writer for Douglas Aircraft and contributing editor for Flying magazine. He also served in the U.S. Air Force Reserve in France in 1960. He later became a trick pilot.
Flying was a transcendent experience for Bach, and he wove the theme into much of his writing.
In an interview after the crash, his son James Bach said, “Dad regards flying as his religion, and he’s very serious about that.”
Another son, Rob Bach, said he would love to see his father up in the air again.
“You kind of want to retire on top. There is some redemption available,” said Rob Bach, a commercial-airline pilot who was inspired to fly by his father.
That inspiration continued even after Rob Bach survived his own plane crash in San Diego in 1993.
Afterward, the younger Bach was certain he was finished flying. But, about a week later, his father came down and they flew over the spot where he crashed.
“That first flight I felt like I would come unhinged, but he was there to push me back into the saddle. I have to return the favor. If he chooses the path, I want to be there for him,” Rob Bach said.
He said his family plans to rebuild his father’s SeaRey, nicknamed “Puff.”
When asked recently about taking to the air again, the elder Bach said it was too soon to consider it.
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or firstname.lastname@example.org.